We’ve all seen cultural problems: low morale, burnout, turnover, lackluster results, low client satisfaction, and donor attrition. We hire new staff, we hold team-building events, we might even bring in a consultant to determine the causes. But there is one area that is often overlooked when trying to fix problems: the culture of the organization and its connection to mission and values.
Every agency has a mission statement. The board and executive director probably agonized over the mission statement for months and potentially revised it over time. Most nonprofits also have formal or informal core values. Ideally, these principles guide the nonprofit’s every move, but in reality, the principles are posted on the website and then forgotten. This happens for a variety of reasons, but commonly, the nonprofit simply assumes that everyone embraces the mission and values, and leaders do not recognize the need to facilitate discussions on them.
Without intentional focus, a disconnect develops between the mission/values and the agency’s daily activities, leading to an unhealthy organizational culture. This disconnect means that employees at every level of the organization do not know the mission and values, do not understand what the mission/values mean, or do not know how they apply to specific, everyday roles. This disconnect can be the source of many cultural problems within the organization. Outward-facing issues, such as poor public image or low donor retention, also arise if the culture of the organization does not match the mission and values when viewed by external stakeholders.
A case study: the safe, caring, supportive environment
Take the following scenario: A homeless shelter has a mission to “Provide shelter for homeless individuals in a safe, caring, and supportive environment while helping guests transition into housing.” The core values are to treat all people with respect, provide individualized care based on each person’s needs, and advocate for those moving through homelessness.
The mission is clear. It short and concise enough to memorize. And the values sound great, right? However, the agency is faced with numerous problems: struggles to attract and retain top employees, clients reporting poor treatment by staff, in-fighting among the team, and low donor retention. In short, the agency culture is not healthy.
In reviewing the above list of issues, leaders identify patterns of behaviors that are out of line with the agency’s stated values. They conduct an informal polling of staff at all levels and find that very few people could state the organization’s mission statement, even fewer know the core values, and none of them can articulate how the mission and values look in practice. The leaders also realize they have not facilitated any discussion, training, or communication about mission and values in recent memory. There is certainly no consistent, frequent, or overarching message about what the mission/values are, or any conversation about expectations regarding how to meet them. With no effort put forth to shape or guide the culture of the organization, the culture grew on its own in an unhealthy way.
Realigning culture to mission and values
So, what to do? It may ultimately turn out that the mission and values need to be updated, but that is a conversation for a later time, not the starting point of solving these problems. Instead, a good place to start is to identify key problems, then develop a plan and goals. This might become an ongoing conversation that gets everyone involved, including the board, front-line staff, non-client facing staff, donors, and volunteers. Here is what the ongoing conversation might look like:
- In a staff meeting, have everyone review the mission and values and write down in their own words what they mean.
- Go around the room and discuss. Leadership should make note of common themes and variances.
- Leadership reviews the themes to define expectations on how to achieve each part of the mission and each of the core values, including how people should treat others and expect to be treated. Leaders must come to a consensus on a clear vision of “healthy culture” and what constitutes “success” in making improvements.
- In subsequent meetings with all staff, ask for examples of what these concepts look like in practice.
Let’s return to the scenario described. What does it look like to “treat all people with respect”? What does a “supportive environment” look like? How do we provide “individualized care”?
Leadership should pay special attention to examples that run contrary to the mission. Do some rules or policies need to be changed? Are any processes in opposition to core values?
- Ask each staff member—all leaders included—to describe how their job relates to each of the principles.
In the scenario, examples might look like the following:In my role as Case Manager, I create a supportive environment by giving my full attention during appointments with my clients.
As the Maintenance Manager, I provide a safe environment by prioritizing repairs that affect facility safety.
As a Department Manager, I treat people with respect by discussing decisions that may affect other departments with my peers before I enact changes.
- When issues arise, analyze them in the context of the mission and values. Ask the following questions: How does this problem relate to our mission? Did we create a less than supportive environment? Did we treat a client or coworker with disrespect or fail to advocate for someone?
- Make this a regular topic of conversation, not just a one-time thing. It has to be ongoing and consistent, and everyone has to be on the same page. Make the topic part of new hire onboarding as well as the first 5-10 minutes of every staff meeting. Yes, every staff meeting—it should become pervasive and part of the regular routine. If it feels like overkill, you are doing it right.
- Finally, most importantly, and for some leaders the hardest step—address any “elephants in the room,” such as negative behaviors that everyone knows about, but no one has addressed. Allowing staff members to continue to get away with conspicuously bad behavior will prohibit progress and will make things more difficult. This needs to happen at all levels, and leadership must analyze their own behavior to see if they are the cause of some of the negative issues. Furthermore, staff needs an avenue to express concerns about bad behavior that they see, and leaders must welcome their feedback for this to work.Sometimes one-on-one conversations are more appropriate than a group setting. For example, if one person is the cause of a certain issue, that would warrant a private conversation, rather than addressing the behavior as if it is a group problem.Ultimately, it is possible that not everyone will be a good fit in the healthy version of the organization, especially if they do not align with the values. If discussions, coaching, and performance plans do not change bad behavior, some people may need to leave, either voluntarily or involuntarily. No matter how valuable someone’s contribution is to the organization, if they are not a fit with the culture, they can harm the entire organization in the long run.
The goal is not to have everyone memorize the mission/values and recite them on cue. It is to have everyone embrace them, believe in them, and use them as a basis for why they show up for work every day. As we all know, people who work in nonprofit generally don’t do so for the paycheck but to create a positive impact through their efforts. However, they are not willing to, nor should they have to, tolerate a negative workplace culture in exchange for feeling good about the difference they can make.
Fostering a culture where everyone is working towards the same mission, based on the same values, and with clear understanding of expectations can go a long way in increasing agency success. When employees have the same goals, it is easier for them to see how they work together rather than in competition with each other. If people are appreciated and treated with respect, they are less likely to leave. Further, when outsiders look into the organization, they will have a clear understanding of what the organization is doing—not because the words are on the website, but because they will see it while on tours, during presentations, and in interactions with agency staff and clients. This improves donor retention and public image.
In short, if your agency is experiencing persistent problems, you might want to examine your organizational culture. The first question you might ask: How connected are we, at every level, to operating based on our mission and values?
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Laura Gorecki is the Chief Dignity Officer for Project Outpour, a nonprofit in Charlotte, NC with the mission to provide mobile showers and hygiene services to neighbors in need. She has been working in the nonprofit sector since 2009 on missions related to homelessness, domestic violence, animal rescue, and food security. She holds an MPA from the University of Texas at Dallas.
Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.