About Us                         Services                         Contact Us            
December 23, 2015
Join the Culture Club
By Melanie Lockwood Herman
Assuming you love your job, what is it about your nonprofit that makes it a wonderful place to work? Despite the undeniable uniqueness of nonprofits, most organizations have the following elements in common: a compelling mission, a defined leadership structure, multiple stakeholder groups and vulnerability to financial stress and strain.
Given the similar components, why do some nonprofits attract and retain the best and brightest, while others are plagued by high rates of turnover, workplace malaise, and the occasional legal claim alleging wrongful termination or illegal discrimination? 
One important, but intangible quality that distinguishes the best from the not-so-good is workplace culture
Hard Truths About Workplace Culture

  • You can't change the culture of a workplace overnight--no matter how sincerely you want or need to
  • A nonprofit with multiple locations, distinct functions or siloed operational teams may have multiple workplace cultures
  • CEOs play a critical role in fostering a positive culture and demonstrating the values they expect others to uphold
  • New CEOs have a unique opportunity to change the culture from bad to better, and then eventually, from better to ideal
  • Conduct or attitudes that are contrary to the desired workplace culture will, if ignored, spread throughout the organization
But the hardest truth about workplace culture is this: you can't change or improve workplace culture by adopting a pithy "values statement," by framing and displaying posters with motivational messages, or by announcing at your next staff training that "things are going to change around here!"
Start Talkin' Bout an Evolution
Instead of hoping and wishing for a workplace culture revolution, resolve to evolve, coax and slowly shape the culture of your nonprofit workplace into one that is worthy of your mission. Here are a few tips to help you get started.
Make Your Employee Handbook Relevant. In her new article, "Lend a Helping Handbook," http://nonprofitrisk.org/library/newsletter/current.shtml, Erin Gloeckner describes why and how some handbooks cause more "grief than good." One common reason is irrelevance. Erin writes, "Handbook content should have meaning; it should only reference policies that you sincerely expect your employees to follow, and that are actually enforceable. ...if it is irrelevant to your workplace culture and expectations, then take it out of your handbook!" 
Practice Inward Goodwill. Nonprofit organizations capably spread cheer and goodwill to the vast communities they serve. But too often that goodwill is only outwardly focused. In "Lend a Helping Handbook," Erin explains that "goodwill" is a quality that inspires employees to read and follow the policies in an employee handbook. She writes: "The handbook is an essential resource for employees--one that demonstrates that the employer is approaching employment issues in a thoughtful way... Take time to create a handbook that... makes employees feel more confident--more confident in their own abilities, and more confident that you have sincere goodwill toward them."
Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say. When workplace culture is weak, employees and managers fear speaking the truth. Whether it's fear of reprisal for critical comments, or a sense that managers are inflexible and uninterested in contrary points of view, a culture of silence is potentially poisonous to your mission. How? A culture of silence can erode the potent idealism that all nonprofit employees bring to their jobs. To inspire a culture of accountability, where each employee does what they promise to do, contrary views must be encouraged and celebrated. Teach everyone on your team to disagree without being disagreeable.
Align and Refine. An important step in evolving workplace culture is aligning what you say you do with what you actually do. For example, if your nonprofit needs staff to be present and available at the office during business hours, stop trying to lure new recruits by promising unlimited flextime. Great leaders are also willing to admit their own mistakes and fumbles. Resolve to inspire conduct that truly reflects the high-performing, high-integrity organization portrayed in your grant proposals and fundraising materials. 
Take a Stand. Kudos to the new CEO who recently told his staff that unlimited, unplanned telecommuting was ending, effective immediately. His predecessor allowed any and all staff to work at home as they saw fit--regardless of the negative impact on client service or teamwork. Although the new CEO's decision rendered him a bit unpopular, his "stand" was what the nonprofit's mission needed. 
For additional insights on workplace culture, see:
Melanie Herman is Executive Director at the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. Melanie welcomes your feedback on this article or questions about risk issues facing your nonprofit, at melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.
Only one week left to get the Center's special end-of-the-year offer on some of our publications! When you order a copy of Exposed: A Legal Field Guide for Nonprofit Executives or Staff Screening Notebook by December 31st, we will send you a free PDF of No Strings Attached: Untangling the Risks of Fundraising & Collaboration.
Exposed: A Legal Field Guide for Nonprofit Executives.
Learn about legal risks facing your nonprofit.

Staff Screening Notebook.
Learn about the Center's 10-step approach for screening employees and volunteers.

NEW - The Employment Issue of RME
The Winter Edition of Risk Management Essentials (RME) is now available. "The Employment Issue" addresses topics of interest and relevance to nonprofit leaders responsible for hiring and managing staff in their organizations. The articles in this brand-new resource include:
  • Lend a Helping Handbook: Employment Policies Worthy of Your Mission
  • Hitting the Nail on the Head: Prioritizing Safety at Your Nonprofit
  • There's No Mystery to Your History: Using Background Checks in the Screening Process 
To access the searchable, online, magazine-style version of RME, click here. To download a printable PDF of the newsletter, click here. To read the articles online, click here. The Center is deeply grateful to our RME advertisers: 501(c) Agencies Trust, Philadelphia Insurance Companies and Great American Insurance Group. The support of these advertisers, and our Corporate Sustainers, makes the publication of Risk Management Essentials possible.
Pass it On!
If you enjoy reading the Center's Risk eNews and know others who would as well, please use the Forward email link that appears below. The link offers an easy way to share the Risk eNews with a colleague. When you use the Forward link your colleague will receive an invitation to subscribe.