Start Building Your Nonprofit’s Culture

Culture has become a buzz word synonymous with start-ups and technology companies trying to attract young talent. Culture has become attached to having beer in the refrigerator or ping pong in the break room. But culture is about people. People create a nonprofit, people build up a nonprofit and neglecting to nurture people can be toxic to culture.

A poor culture can be the result of many different issues, not exclusive to, but including a lack of communication, poor leadership, no ownership, little to no freedom and inefficient feedback. One way to avoid these culture killers is to spend time thinking about your organization’s brand, purpose and core values.

Start with your brand

Why do you need to spend time defining your brand as a nonprofit? There’s so much more you could be working on.

Defining your organization’s brand will withstand time, money, staff members and outside circumstances. Not only can your brand impact fundraising efforts, it can attract top talent, create organizational cohesion, drive strategy, develop community relationships and much more. Many well-known organizations like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Habitat for Humanity and the Special Olympics have spent resources establishing and growing their brands.

Nathalie Kylander & Christopher Stone wrote an article for the Stanford Social Innovation Review about The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector where they present a framework entitled IDEA for managing a nonprofit’s brand. This and the book, The Brand IDEA: Managing Nonprofit Brands with Integrity, Democracy, and Affinity, provide more detailed insight for those that want to dig in deeper.

But for today, let’s start by discussing how we define our brand in simple terms.

Brand exercise

Pull together a small group of key stakeholders that understand your organization and are a part of building its future. These people can be managers, employees, board members, volunteers or any mix of them.

  1. Start by writing ‘What We Are’ on a dry erase board or large sticky note on the wall.
  2. Ask your team to throw out one-word adjectives about what your organization represents internally and what you want it to represent externally.
  3. Narrow the adjectives down to 4 to 6 words that best represent your organization.
  4. Next, write ‘What We Are Not’ on another section of the dry erase board or large sticky note.
  5. Ask your team to throw out one-word adjectives about what your organization does not represent.
  6. Narrow the adjectives down to 4 to 6 do not words that best represent your organization.
  7. Then, you’ll want to look at all 8 to 12 words and land on the final 4 to 6 words that you want to use. This could be a combination of are and are not terms like Accomplished, Clever, World-Class, Not Exclusive, Focused.

I did this exercise with Make a Mark, a nonprofit organization built to provide resources and foster an environment where community organizations and visual communicators can engage with one another to better our world.

After a couple of hours of conversation and discernment, we landed on Sincere, Crafted, Curious, Vibrant, Multifaceted and Accomplished.

If you’d like some words to start, consider purchasing a Brand Deck. This pack of cards costs only $20 and comes with many adjectives as well as cards representing ‘You Are,’ ‘You Are Not,’ and ’N/A.’

Determining purpose

Most organizations already have a purpose or a mission statement. The purpose is the heart and soul of the organization. It is the reason why an organization exists.

Simon Sinek does a great job of explaining the importance of why, how and what in his TED Talk entitled How great leaders inspire action.

Laying out a powerful purpose statement is important not just to the communities that you serve, but those staff members and volunteers that commit themselves to the cause. A purpose statement drives strategy, clarifies decisions and inspires employees and volunteers.

The purpose/mission statement for the American Red Cross is to ‘prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.’

As you can see, this isn’t a particularly specific purpose, but it does outline the spirit and long-term goals of the organization.

In order to start your purpose statement, ask yourself the following.

  1. Why does your organization exist? Your why should be your cause or belief.
  2. How do you want to meet your why? How do you want to end suffering or mobilize a population, or whatever your why is? The how should be something that makes your organization unique or special.
  3. What do you want to do? What services or programs or products are you going to use to do meet your why?

After you have those questions answered, draft an initial statement. It may not make sense to include all three — why, how and what — in your purpose statement, but the answers to the three questions above should guide it. These are important to know.

Look at your draft and then continue to ask yourself questions about the statement.

  1. Does this purpose represent our passion?
  2. Is this purpose long-lasting?
  3. Does this purpose inspire and excite employees?

Examples of purpose statements include:

Make a Mark — ‘To provide resources and foster an environment where community organizations and visual communicators can engage with one another to better our world.’

YOVASO — ‘YOVASO is a youth leadership organization focused on educating, encouraging and empowering teenagers to be traffic safety advocates in their schools and communities.’

Habitat for Humanity — ‘Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.’

Now that you have an incredible purpose statement, make sure to place it somewhere visibly, use it when recruiting new employees or volunteers and refer to it when making big organizational decisions.

Building out core values

Core values, often known as core principles, as rules and guidelines that stay true to your organization across time. Core values should reflect what your organization already is, not what you want it to be. Much like your purpose, your core values should drive your behavior and inspire your staff.

Bring back together your small group of key stakeholders that you used for the brand exercise.

  1. As a group, identify a handful of individuals in you organization that a perfect examples of who you are.
  2. Start telling stories about those individuals.
  3. Identify what values drive the behaviors in those stories.
  4. Develop between 4 and 8 core values for your organization and share those with others.

Examples of core values include:

The Arc — People First, Equity, Community, Self-Determination, Diversity

Habitat for Humanity — Demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ, Focus on shelter, Advocate for affordable housing, Promote dignity and hope, Support transformational and sustainable community development

Catholic Charities — Respect, Compassion, Competence, Stewardship

Keep your core values visible within your organization. Use them when sharing stories, when determining programs and when hiring and evaluating employees.

Developing your organization’s culture by solidifying your brand, purpose and core values puts you in a perfect position for communicating your value for grants, sponsorships and donations. It’s not just technology companies that deserve it, nonprofits that are driving our communities forward should have a culture and a brand that they are proud of.

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