Leveraging Organizational Culture

What would you say if I told you that a key factor that impacts your bottom line every day is being consistently ignored? Your organizational culture is the fabric of your organization – it impacts relationships, accountability, motivation and commitment. When an organization’s culture is purposeful and effective, it can make the difference during hard times or critical deadlines. But when an organization’s culture is chaotic, unfriendly, or unintentional, your organization will experience challenges retaining talent and experiencing alignment – even in the best of times!

Many of our clients will spend resources on a conflict after the fact. We get urgent calls, in fact, from clients when there is an emergency:

“The majority of staff is upset over the firing of a beloved staff person – the first person of color in a leadership role. We can’t get passed this.”

“A long term volunteer is suspected of harassment and there’s a deep division among his supporters and detractors.”


“Our all white leadership team is stuck with how to move a racial justice effort forward.”


“A great deal of effort is being spent on major donor solicitations with no energy or resources being put into grassroots fundraising – and we call ourselves a grassroots advocacy organization.”


These are just a handful of situations. The list could be 10 times longer. Why is it so much easier to make the case to spend the money on an organization’s culture after the problem emerges, instead of planning for strategic culture change proactively?

What would it mean to take the old adage “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” seriously? How can we build accountable, just, and joyful organizations?


Four Practices

There are three practices that set organizations up for successful and intentional culture change:

  1. Engagement. Notice who is engaged and who’s not. And begin to check in with everyone. Stay interviews! Not only exit interviews. Why is this person staying? What do they love about their role and responsibilities? Why do they care about the organization? What would make them even more excited or enthusiastic?
  2. Community Building. How do people know one another? Are we spending any down time together? Do all the same people eat together all the time or hang out after work? Who is left out of these informal rituals and what is the price paid for these unintentional exclusions? How can we build better relationships across the organization? Are there opportunities to serve on cross-departmental teams and are those efforts resourced appropriately? How can we build trust if we don’t know each other?
  3. Integrate Racial Justice into Everything. Are you asking enough questions? Every meeting debrief, every plan, every conversation can be imbued with questions about how this decision will impact people of color on staff. Who will benefit from this decision? Who could be hurt? What can be done to be transparent about power and status? How might white supremacy be influencing our frame, language, assumptions? What are the most effective ways of explaining these choices and reflections to our stakeholders, including our donors?
  4. Infrastructure. Your organization’s infrastructure is key. How you establish the boundaries for communication, data, meetings, job descriptions, and work deadlines all establish clarity. When we don’t have agreed to and transparent expectations for one another, we can have more interpersonal conflict – conflicts that we think are about personality or identity or status – when in fact, we are in conflict because we don’t know what to expect, or from who to expect it or when it will be expected. Systems and structures are necessary.

By recognizing disengagement, striving to build community, integrating racial justice into our work, and by having strong infrastructures – our organizations will cultivate a collective sense of purpose and trust. We will recruit and retain talent more easily, manage hard conversations more readily, and evolve cultures that are strategic. We will surpass our goals.

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