How To Build An Intentional Organizational & Team Culture

Today we’re going to talk about intentional staff and organizational culture but before I dive in, I want to share a fun new resource — I have a podcast mini-series on how to fund your strategic vision — how to get clear about your vision and then get it fully funded. I’m doing it with my business bestie Rhea Wong, founder of the Fundraising Accelerator and author of Get That Money Honey, The no bullshit guide to raising more money for your nonprofit.  Every Friday for the next 3 weeks, tune in to listen to me and Rhea breakdown the strategies you need to think about within each of the 3 areas of the growth pie – personal and mindset, internal organizational structures, and external relationships and messaging. 

I’ve talked about various aspects of staffing and HR on this podcast – The nuts and bolts of what I call your “personnel pathway” are important – the structures, policies, and practices around hiring, onboarding, supporting growth and development. 

But what animates it and helps make everything run smoothly is the culture. 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.”

In layman’s terms: These are the shared values and norms that the people on your team agree to live by. 

Every organization has a culture. You can be intentional and define it, or it can be implied and develop on its own. Just like every org has a brand and every person has a reputation – the question is are you shaping it or are you letting it grow on its own. 

Your culture is often implied through vision, mission, and value statements, even if it’s not consistently defined “on paper.” 

It can also develop organically over time from the cumulative traits of the people the company hires, and the behaviors management tolerates.

By contrast, intentional culture is shaped, discussed, and planned, and is reflected in team agreements, community norms and practices, and organizational policies.   

I argue that the more effective way to build culture – the way to make sure it reflects what you want it to reflect, that it shapes actions and behaviors, and that it lasts, is to do so intentionally. 

As they say:  Culture eats strategy for breakfast”… 

The strategies don’t work, and don’t work the way we want or think they will, without the right culture. 

Your culture is the air that you breathe or the water that you swim in. 

It maintains or undermines stability within an organization. 

  • The culture of your organization will shape the ability of your team to constructively disagree… 
  • It influences whether the best ideas are being put forward and whether people feel they can “fail forward…” 
  • It shapes how your staff shows up in public spaces, how they treat one another – do they gossip? Do they compare themselves to one another? 
  • How do they own their work – do they ask for help? Do they take risks? 
  • It shapes how people are hired and onboarded
  • how easily issues get resolved… 

All of this is to say that investment in building your organizational culture must go hand in hand with investment in the right strategies.

So I want to walk through the elements of a strong team and organizational culture. Those of you who listen to me know that I like a good framework or structure for things, and even something as seemingly soft and fuzzy and esoteric as organizational culture can be broken down into its component parts and approached with intentionality and strategy. 

Which I love – intentionality and strategy. 

So important as you grow an organization! 

Ok, so what are the elements of a strong team and organizational culture? 

There are 4 pillars to think about when shaping your organizational culture. 

Shared purpose, core values, team agreements, and organizational policies. I’m going to walk through each of these – what they are and how to think about them in your organization. 

Shared purpose – Why we are all here 

  • In practice, this means having a shared understanding of the organization’s mission and vision, as well as the most current strategic plan.
  • Why are we here? What is the cathedral we’re building? 
  • What am I part of? I’m putting my blood, sweat, and tears into this work – for what? To what end? 

Agreed-upon Values – Core Values 

  • Again definitions: 
  • Core means center, heart, nucleus, interior, foundation, mainstay, focal points and substance.
  • Values are the principles, standards, morals, ethics, and ideals. 
  • With these definitions in mind, a nonprofit’s core values are the ideals and principles that are at the heartbeat of an organization and guide the decision-making, actions and behaviors of everything it does.
  • The values that make up a strong culture are active. They animate decision-making.
  • Core values relate to how money is used within the organization, the organization’s philosophy on work-life balance, and how to measure impact and success.
  • Values are also fixed. 
  • In Good to Great and the Social Sectors, Jim Collins writes, “Great organizations keep clear the difference between their core values (which never change) and operating strategies and culture practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world).”

Team Agreements – How we will behave together and treat one another  

  • A team agreement is a formal document that outlines the expectations, roles, and responsibilities of a team. It is usually created collaboratively and agreed upon by all team members. The agreement should be clear and concise, and it should cover all aspects of the team’s work. 
  • By creating a team agreement, team members can align on expectations and agree to work together in a certain way. This can be helpful in preventing conflict and promoting collaboration. 
  • The goal of any team agreement should be to help create a more cohesive and successful team.

Finally, organizational policies 

  • Make sure that your purpose, values and agreements are reflected in the bones of your organization, including your HR policies around hiring, professioanl development, performance evaluation, and compensation; Your external engagement policies such as  strategic communications and fundraising, and your financial management policies. 
  • For example, what does equitable compensation look like? 
  • How are hiring decisions made? Which indicators are in the hiring rubric? 
  • How do you handle evaluations? What is the role of transparency in your budgeting and financial management? Are there funders or donors you won’t take money from? 
  • How are your values reflected in how you steward and hold relationships with donors and funders? 

Ok, to recap: Culture eats strategy for breakfast. To build a solid culture, think about 4 pillars:  Shared purpose, core values, team agreements, and organizational policies. 

They all both build on and feed into one another, and together, they create a solid container for a healthy culture to thrive. 

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