People generally agree that defining culture is critically important in nearly all organizations. This includes nonprofits, for-profits, PTAs, 4-H Clubs, etc.

Scott Young spoke at length about culture on the podcast.

But I think I've found an instance where it isn't important to define culture.

Let me explain.

My Business's Culture

You see, I’m a “solo-preneur”. This is a trendy way of saying I’m all alone. That’s right, the Nonprofit Wizards is a one-person show.

By the way, I’m not a Wizard. But I help EDs and CEOs master tools which enable them to look like Wizards to their staff and boards. You know, like they're capable of magic.

But I digress...

Back to my company. I am my company. My values are my company’s values. The way I behave at work is the way people are expected to behave at work. When I represent my company in public, there is no doubt as to whether or not I’m reflecting my company’s culture.

But one-person organizations are THE ONLY organizations that don’t need to think about defining culture.

For YOU, the nonprofit executive, defining culture is of PARAMOUNT importance.

What exactly is culture, anyway?

The term “culture” gets thrown around a lot. You can read about it in esteemed publications like Harvard Business Review. And Inc. Magazine. And Forbes.

But what does it mean, exactly?

We're not talking about petri dishes.

According to the dictionary, culture is “the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group.” We can easily think of American culture, European culture, Middle-eastern culture, Asian culture and so on.

IMPORTANT NOTE: This is where stereotypes creep in.

We also have regional cultures. I’m from Nebraska, and the Midwest has a “friendly” and “ folksy” culture. I think I’m friendly. The overalls I’m wearing would suggest I’m folksy. That, and the hayseed I have clenched in my teeth as I write this (I’m making a joke about stereotypes).

Culture gets even more granular. If you’ve ever gone to meet your boyfriend’s--or girlfriend's, or college friend's, or just friend-friend's--family, you’ve felt that feeling of “hanging back” and figuring out the “right” way to act.

Are they quiet and reserved?

Or loud and expressive?

Do they gather around the television?

Or around the dining room table?

These all combine to create culture.

The same happens when you start a new job. Do people bag their lunch, or go out to eat? Do they pop in on each others’ offices? Or is that frowned upon? Do they gossip? Do they support one another?

I’ve worked in offices that was as quiet as a library and others where silence was rare (but profanity was no).

As you grow, defining culture becomes more important

Even if you haven’t formally defined your culture, you still have one.

If you’re a really small organization, every member of the staff regularly interacts with everyone else. So your staff learn the culture by watching you and each other. Like osmosis.

In larger organizations, though, there’s probably several layers between you and your coworkers. You can go weeks--even months--without seeing certain members of the staff. This is when formally defining culture becomes critical.

There's a common phrase: “culture is caught, not taught.”

You want your people catching the right culture.

How culture is built

As a nonprofit executive, you build your organization's culture in two significant ways.

First, you have to focus on messaging your organization’s culture. In order to do that, you must define the culture you want. Then, you need to consistently communicate with your entire staff in a way that supports the culture.

For example, if you want your culture to be informal, you’ll want to use informal language in your emails. This means emails about ANYTHING, not specifically about culture. At meetings, you’ll want to act informally. If you make a short speech at the winter holiday party, it needs to be be informal (for some reason people often become uncharacteristically stiff and stodgy when speaking in front of a group).

If you want your culture to be one where everyone feels comfortable approaching everyone else, you yourself need to be approachable.

This is a hard one for me personally. I like to get “dialed in” when I’m working. If there’s something I REALLY want to get accomplished, and someone interrupts me, I struggle with ending the conversation in a diplomatic, friendly fashion. You’ll need to be cognizant of how you’re seen by others.

The second area where you build culture is hiring. As mentioned before, you probably have several layers in your organization. If you do, members of your leadership team probably make their own hires. Even if you do a “check-with-me” type final interview for fit, the candidates brought to you are screened by someone else.

In nonprofits especially, the public views every staff member as an extension of you. Your selections for filling the seats on your leadership team are critically important. They will choose the majority of your organization’s employees.

On second thought...

As I wrote this piece, I actually changed my mind. Even I need to pay attention to my company culture. Sometimes I get tired. Sometimes I get frustrated, even angry. It is at these moments when I need to revisit my core values and make sure I'm representing my culture accurately.

So I guess there aren’t ANY cases where culture isn’t important.

What do you think?

Do you agree that organizational culture is important? How do you drive culture? How has culture helped your organization be more effective?

I’d love to hear about it! Send me a message or hop over to the Nonprofit Wizards Facebook page!

Darren Macfee is the founder of the Nonprofit Wizards. He studies the habits and practices of wizards and then shares those with the world. He also strives to be a little better every day--as a husband, as a dad, and as a business professional.

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