Making a Cultural Change at Your Organization

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Cha-cha-change: Making a Cultural Change at Your Organization

Author: Renee Herrell, Consultant, Blog Post


Change is… well, nicely put: not easy. It is also very necessary at times for nonprofit organizations to keep their doors open or take their programs to the next level.

When I am invited into an organization to conduct a fundraising plan, strategic plan or to implement Board development, I am being asked to help the organization change. Often, they need to change in order to keep their doors open like in the case of the Chula Vista Nature Center who lost $1 million of their funding from the City due to budget cuts. Or they need to achieve long-term goals, like the San Diego Architectural Foundation, to become financially stable and implement programs to their target audience. Or to shift the structure and operations of the Board, like Samaritan Aviation, whose Founder is stepping down as Chair and new leadership is being installed.

Whatever the trigger, the leaders of the organization will need to commit to change – specifically the organization will need to change its current culture. According to Webster, culture is the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. Culture dictates the actions and behavior of the leadership. In order to create change in an organization, we need to focus on shifting the attitudes, values, goals and practices.

How do you implement change?

First step: To start an organizational culture change, first establish why you need to change the organizational culture. People must have some understanding of why the change in strategy or in culture is needed.

  • Have you lost significant funding? Is your programming ineffective?
  • Is your staff or Board leadership dysfunctional and keeping the organization from meeting its mission?

Define how change happens in your organization. Cultures are often developed from the top-down, so this is where cultural change needs to start. In nonprofit organizations the top leadership is comprised of the Board Chair, Board members, and Executive Director. In order to change, you will need to gain “buy-in” from these folks.

How do you gain buy in?

  • "Proof is in the Pudding." Sometimes you need to be proactive by making small changes to show the positive results in order to convince the leadership that further change is needed.
  • "Buy-in" can happen through a simple facilitated conversation. Often Board members and executive level staff know that something needs to change, but they haven’t all come together to discuss why and how change needs to happen. I recommend having an outside individual facilitate this conversation in order to keep the group “on track” with discussion and come to a consensus about change and next steps.

Second step: Decide to change the culture. This is the hardest step. It is often the “come to Jesus” moment for the organization. Define your current culture, the culture you want to become and identify the changes you need to implement.

Third step: Develop a plan. Create goals, objectives and action steps that will lead you through an effective change in the organization’s culture. Develop a timeline for each action step and who will lead this initiative.

Fourth step: Implement the cultural change. You will need to consciously change the elements that have developed to make up the system over months, years, or even decades. Change happens through implementing the action steps in your plan. The more you actions you take, the more changes you can make.

Often change is implemented through peer pressure because we tend to conform to the behavior of the people around us. Which is what makes culture change particularly challenging because everyone is conforming to the current culture. This can work for once the leadership has gained consensus on changing and produced a plan.

To implement change, you will need to consider what resources you need. You may need additional staff or need to shift some responsibilities within your current staff. You may need to engage in better fundraising efforts.. You may need to put aside funds to implement new programs. You may need to set aside time to develop additional talented Board members or a specific committee.

There is a chance that changing the culture of your organization may not work or may be slow to implement. You may not see the fruits of your labor for years and years to come. Creating positive change for the organization is a long-term investment. Remember: change is not pretty and change is not easy, but ultimately all of your hard work will lead the organization to better achieve its mission.


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