How to Change Organization Culture — Without Resistance or Chaos

nonprofit strategy staff retention

For most nonprofits, organizational culture is an incredible source of strength and staying power.

According to a Bridgespan study of 130 nonprofit management teams, “culture” rated as one of the top two organizational assets across the board. However, all too often, it’s this very asset that needs shifting when nonprofits face change.

So, how can nonprofit leaders proceed when it’s clear that a cultural transformation is essential in order to reach specific goals or increase overall impact?


Culture = The Foundation of Your Nonprofit

Some may believe that it’s simply enough that nonprofit teams complete their tasks and responsibilities.

Yet, I believe that defining your organizational culture matters. In fact, it matters a lot.

Culture determines your team’s collective understanding of how your organization operates. It can affect everything from donor satisfaction and your overall effectiveness to the commitment with which your team does its work.

And most importantly, it demonstrates the core values you uphold. Think about it: when your various supporters grasp your core values, you can trust them to make the right decisions.


Where to Start

To start the process of changing your organization’s culture, you should first ask:

  • What is the atmosphere like in your working environment?
  • How do you communicate with each other, donors and volunteers?
  • How do your team members work? Do they focus on independent tasks? Collaborative projects? Both?
  • How do you define work hours? Are there flexible schedules, or set hours?
  • What is your decision-making process? Are key decisions made by one or two people? Who else has the power to make chief decisions?
  • How do you define your approach to your nonprofit’s work and mission?

Defining organizational culture is a gradual process. It takes time to build and every team member has an important role in cultivating it.

Yet it’s also important to realize that your organization’s leadership deeply affects the direction in which it will evolve and adapt.

For example, perhaps your staff regards transparency as one of its key principles. While everyone stresses upfront honesty with donors, it’s important to realize that it starts at home first.

Dive deeper by taking an inward look: as a leader, do you practice transparency with your team members? Do you communicate with staff members about their goals? Furthermore, do you welcome honest feedback from your team?


IPM’s Best Practices to Change Organization Culture

Improving your nonprofit's organizational culture involves several different changes:

  • Build a change management strategy and plan in advance. Know where you want to end up by describing the culture that you want so you have a direction to go in.
  • Set realistic timelines. Know the process is challenging (and often tough) and that it’s not going to happen in a month, or even a year.
  • Gain an understanding of human behavior. You can do this by exploring what makes people tick – what ignites their passion and commitment to change. You can also analyze what causes them to resist.
  • Educate and engage stakeholders to think about what needs to change and why. Always involve this important segment in generating potential solutions.
  • Never implement too many changes at once. Space goals and objectives out to give the organization time to integrate and adapt.
  • Be patient. Understand that there will be false starts and backtracking, and that it’s inevitable that things you thought were nailed down can potentially come loose. Build this mindset into your expectations, your schedule and your budget.


Create a Culture of Happiness

Finally, organizational culture relates to how you treat your team members. After all, talented people will want to work for those organizations that care about them. And when your staff feels valued and empowered, it directly impacts their motivation and how they work.

A positive culture will help align people with your nonprofit’s core values and give them a strong sense of purpose. If you want to build an organizational culture that inspires team members to pursue your mission it’s vital to take the time and effort to nudge it in the desired direction.

These efforts can have a lasting impact on your employees, constituents, and overall success.


On average, new IPM clients see a 34.8% increase in direct mail fundraising acquisition response rates within the first year of working with us. Want to learn more?

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