Culture Resource Guide

Culture Resource Guide

Culture Resource Guide: Shift

  • July 3, 2018

Now that we have assessed our organizational culture and compared it to our vision of the culture we want, it’s time to translate that vision into actual behaviors and practices. Shifting culture doesn’t mean simply developing a fresh values statement or identifying three or four cultural attributes that we want to define us. Rather, we need to back up these actions with real work to create a culture that will make our organization and nonprofits more successful.

How Culture Change Happens

Whether we are intentional about it or not, the cultures of our organizations are shifting all the time. Like the lily pond in Edgar Schein’s analogy, culture is ever changing and fluid. The pond changes with the seasons, with the introduction of new creatures, with a heavy rain or drought, or in response to environmental changes such as pollution or predation.

Similarly, in grantmaking organizations, the culture evolves over time. In GEO’s research, grantmakers described many inflection points when their organizations seized the opportunity to tend to culture. They included the following:

  • New leadership. New CEO, restructured senior team, new board members.
  • External events. Changing demographics, technology trends, changes in the community or the policy/political environment.
  • Changes in assets. Increase due to significant gift or bequest, or decline due to underperforming assets.
  • Launch of a planning process. Change in strategy, vision, focus.
  • Nonprofit and community feedback. Surveys, conversations indicating a need for change.
  • Anniversaries and organizational milestones. Years of grantmaking, amount of grants, founders’ passing, and so forth.
  • Office moves or redesigns. Design of space to reflect desired culture — for example, openness, collaboration, public space.

As GEO explored in Shaping Culture Through Key Moments, these changes present opportunities for foundation leaders and staff to bring more intentionality and foresight to the work of shifting culture. Rather than allowing our cultures to stagnate or evolve entirely on their own, we can in these moments work with our colleagues to articulate and nurture the cultures we want.

But paying attention to culture doesn’t have to happen only at huge, earth-shattering moments in the life of an organization or its operating environment. Foundation leaders and staff have opportunities all the time to shift the culture of our organizations.

Things to Remember

As we set out to shift culture, GEO’s work has turned up some important points to remember:

Make it everyone’s work. Foundation leaders can play a part not just in identifying opportune moments to work on culture but also in creating and shaping those moments as a way to drive change. But shifting culture has to be an organization-wide priority because an organization’s culture is influenced by everyone who is a part of it. In other words, everyone throughout the organization needs to understand how her or his role and behaviors either reinforce or contradict the culture we are collectively trying to create and how to help drive change.

GEO has identified numerous examples of how non senior staff have independently helped to shape culture in a positive way. These examples of middle-out or bottom-up culture change show that a productive foundation culture is one where everyone has a role to play in shifting culture and creating the ethos and the core behaviors of the organization.

Follow the money. Shifting culture also means paying attention to where and how we spend money. If we want to create a more responsive organizational culture, for example, that will likely have implications for the operating budget in areas from staffing to technology. This might force us to make trade-offs in other areas. The fact is that budgets and spending are an expression of the culture and values we bring to our work.

Pay attention to microcultures. As GEO documented in Exploring Microcultures and Why They Matter, small groups of people in our organizations often operate with their own assumptions, values and working behaviors. Whether based on race or ethnicity, job roles, office locations, or other factors, these microcultures can have a profound effect — for better or worse — on the larger culture of our organizations and our ability to create the conditions for smarter grantmaking. Shifting culture at the macro level therefore means also paying attention to what happens at the micro level, and finding the right balance between coherence and creative tension among the microcultures in our organizations.

Don’t get discouraged. Intentionally trying to change an organization’s culture is hard work, and it takes time. It often can seem like nothing is happening or that there are two steps back for every step forward. It’s particularly difficult because so much of culture is actually beyond our conscious awareness — culture is about the underlying beliefs, values and assumptions that drive our individual and collective behavior. But the fact that it’s hard shouldn’t deter us. If we want to evolve our culture to better achieve our mission and support nonprofits, then not only is it worth the effort — it’s absolutely critical.

Questions to Ask

  • In which ways does our organizational culture already reflect our aspired culture? In which ways are our current and aspired cultures different?
  • Which actions does our organization need to take to move closer to our aspired culture?
  • What is my individual role in helping our organization move closer to our aspired culture?
  • Which three specific next steps might I initiate to help my organization take action? Who do we need to involve in that process?
  • How do the attributes of productive culture show up in the next steps I’ve identified?
  • What can’t I change? Given that, where should I focus my attention?
  • What opportunities do we have — large or small — to pay more attention to culture in the months ahead?

As we go through the process of shifting our culture, it’s important to remember that culture has to be an ongoing priority. The work is never done. In the next section, we explore how we can TEND a productive foundation culture on an ongoing basis.