How to Establish Workplace Culture in Your Nonprofit

Teamwork is essential for workplace culture
Written by - 17 Oct 2018 Category: Non-profit Challenges

It is a well-known fact that all non-profits suffer from some inadequacy - from ubiquitous financial constraints to skewed work hours. However, such commonplace deficiencies can hardly be a cause of a non-profit’s eventual dysfunction.

It is a well-known fact that all non-profits suffer from some inadequacy - from ubiquitous financial constraints to skewed work hours. However, such commonplace deficiencies can hardly be a cause of a non-profit’s eventual dysfunction. That cause, as demonstrated in well-researched sources such as Jeffery Pfeffer’s Dying for a Paycheck, is often found to be workplace culture, an aspect of work that is observed every day, but never paid attention to. Establishing a sustainable, practical workplace culture is something that must be on the to-do list of non-profit leaders and managers, and this post aims to lay a strong foundation for your non-profit in that direction.

At the onset, one needs to understand what a soft term such as “culture” actually means. Prima facie, it would indicate the values, behaviour, and habits of an organisation and its people. While it is a great starting point, this view of culture is only skin deep. As hypothesised in Laura Putnam’s Workplace Wellness that Works, culture takes place on various levels, with layers from bottom to top, as in a pyramid.

At the bottom-most layer, called the Functioning layer, you have workplace practices that relate to how people perform their tasks or functions. These are the most essential elements of setting a culture. How is any work planned, measured, tracked in your workplace? What kind of support system do your people have? Are basic necessities - clean surroundings, appropriate furniture, computers and internet, timely salaries - taken care of? Is there enough flexibility in the work schedule? While these sound elementary practices, not taking care of them may rapidly lead to dysfunction.

The next layer, the Feeling layer, relates to people feeling appreciated or respected. Do you have a system to acknowledge the success of your people, at all levels? Are there regular feedback/reviews given? How about feedback to the management? Are there any awards publicly given to high performers? How does the organisation deal with interpersonal issues or discontent towards the management? How would you rate yourself when it comes to caring for one another? Teamwork is essential for workplace culture and the more enriched your teamwork practices, the better groundwork you have for a robust organisational culture.

By this point, a healthy workplace culture is beginning to evolve! But what your organisation now needs is the “moments of joy”, or a Friendship layer. Simply put, these are the self-induced fun activities that your people engage in. Do they have lunch with one another? Do they hang out during non-office work hours or on weekends? At work, do they rely on one another when they are not formally required to? While these may be a wide range of disconnected activities, together they indicate a culture that is collegial and collaborative. However, forcing staff to do fun team-building exercises is a trap that can do more harm than good. So, encourage informal engagement, but do not intimidate!

Enrichment is the next step in the direction of a culture of well-being. Appropriately termed the Forward layer, the next layer deals with a pivotal issue: do your people have opportunities for growth, helping them in moving forward? A supportive onboarding program, regular feedback and discussions, a system for individual development plans, frequent opportunities for training and upskilling can go a long way. You can also take this a notch up by encouraging staff to share their new learning and volunteer for leadership tasks of their interest. Most people join non-profits with the acceptance of low pay and expectation of greater learning. You don’t want to fail on the second front!

And lastly, at the apex of the culture pyramid is the Fulfilment layer, akin to the Self-Actualisation block in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Does your organisation have a mission? How well do your people relate to and resonate with the mission? Are your people passionate about their work, to the extent that they are willing to overlook the day-to-day challenges and constraints that bog them down? Do you have a practice of observing, acknowledging, and rewarding those who demonstrate uncommon commitment? Remember, those who are found to be worthy at Fulfilment layer, are your strongest people, potentially suitable for leadership positions down the line. In a way, this layer is essentially where the culture of an organisation is said to be mature.

While understanding these aspects of organisational culture is easy, developing the culture is not that straightforward. What complicates the matter is the fact that there is no right or wrong way, or even a starting or an ending point, of creating a culture. So do not overthink - grab an aspect of your organisation that needs fixing and set it right. Solve it in a manner that is sustainable in the long run, and you have a piece of your workplace culture. Weave such pieces together and a unique culture will emerge! Finally, do not hesitate in replicating cultural practices you find working in other organisations. “Great artists steal”, said Picasso and building workplace culture is definitely an art.

Until next time, happy culture-building!

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This post is the next in the series of addressing specific challenges non-profits face and builds on top of earlier posts such as acquiring the right talent, non-profit recruitment roadmap, and employee retention strategies.

About CiviHR

CiviHR is a project to create affordable HR software for non-profit organisations. By developing open source technology the benefits can be shared with non-profits everywhere.


CiviHR is a project to create affordable HR software for non-profit organisations. By developing open source technology the benefits can be shared with non-profits everywhere.