Culture Matters

As I’ve been considering the impact that the COVID crisis is having on business, government and the nonprofit sector, I’ve come to realize the extent to which these times are going to separate the good managers from the bad ones. Suddenly everything is visible. There is nowhere to hide.

Among nonprofits, both boards and individual and institutional donors are going to be more sensitive than ever about how organizations are being managed and resourced.

Many managers and leaders are still in the denial stage. Some are just frightened, frozen. This is understandable, but action must be taken.

The new ways of working remotely only increase the importance of having a strong organizational culture in place.

The role of leadership is to build a culture based on the enterprise’s purpose, mission, vision, and values. You should be conscious of the culture that you want and use every opportunity to create and nurture it. You want people at every level of your organization to have a clear sense of its purpose as well as its goals, and to feel a sense of belonging and respect. An exceptional culture attracts and retains talented staff as well as passionate volunteers, board members, and supportive donors to propel their mission forward.

Culture is built upon an organization’s values. Those in charge must articulate and embrace those values. If they don’t develop processes collaboratively by inviting input from all stakeholders, the culture can become plagued by simmering resentments. Unproductive attitudes can infect an organization that does not pay close attention to its mission, vision, and values. Without a positive culture it becomes just a blame game. A culture that promotes and rewards respect and trust will be healthy and productive.

Managers and boards often fail to appreciate the impact and consequences of change on the psychology of employees. People may need additional tools and techniques to help them manage during times of turmoil. Inexperienced managers need to be encouraged to build momentum.

Remember that human beings tend to respond to significant change in predictable ways. Employees can fall into patterns where they deny what’s going on, become depressed and discouraged, and resist change. It’s similar to a grief process. At first, they deny reality. Then they move through shock, fear and anger, and then through confusion and stress. Finally, they realize that change is coming, that it must come, though they may still be uncomfortable letting go of the past.

Organizational consultant William Bridges developed a model of change that I use (illustrated below). A good leader understands where employees are on the curve, and can anticipate next stages. I always found that it was important to validate employee concerns by talking about the paradoxes we all faced —they realized that I understood the tensions and stress that they faced. By painting a path that acknowledges their stress but offers optimism and confidence, you can inspire employees to attack the new reality with energy and enthusiasm.

If you do it right, you can build positive momentum and blast out from this dark place toward a renewed, dynamic future.

Whether you’re a staff member, a board member or a donor, ask yourself: how can I best offer support to an organization as it moves through these stages?

I’ve just published the new second edition of my booklet, Applied Wisdom for the Nonprofit Sector: Eight Practical Insights for Leaders. The first chapter outlines many of my thoughts about organizational culture, expanding on what I’ve discussed here. You can order a complimentary print booklet or obtain a digital copy (ebook, PDF or audiobook) here. Please share it with your family, friends and colleagues. Find out more at

To your success,
Jim Morgan