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Nonprofit Culture: Developing a Unifying Force to Inspire Team Spirit

Updated: Apr 25

team rowing lesson learned in Tom Iselin's best board retreat facilitator workshop

Nonprofit Culture: Developing a Unifying Force to Inspire Team Spirit

Did you play on a high school sports team that won a conference or state championship? Perhaps you played on a winning bas­ketball, football, soccer, tennis, ski, track, cheerleading, or gymnastics team. If you weren’t a jock, maybe you played on a winning club team such as chess, debate, or band. Or, maybe you participated in a dance company or theater group.

Whatever the activity, if you played on a winning team, you know the importance of team spirit and hard work. Everyone has a role, every role is important, and everyone trains hard—individually and collectively—to achieve common goals.

If you reflect on those glory days, you’ll probably discover you were part of a team driven by authentic passion, inspired by a respected team cap­tain, and led by a demanding but compassionate coach who provided valuable guidance, praise, and accountability.

Playing on a championship team is a once in a lifetime experience. You make friends, have fun, and the more you win the more inspired you become to work harder to win more. It makes you feel invincible, your soul bubbles with joy, and the memories last a lifetime.

Working for a nonprofit is similar to playing on a sports team. Each nonprofit sector is like a sports league. It has its own language, rules, and regulations. It has its own geographic region: local, county, state, national, and global. Whatever “league” your nonprofit plays in, each nonprofit in your league is made up of people who believe their good work—their participation—will make a difference.

Some sports teams win championships because they have a star player. Others win because they have a great coach. Many have a star player and a great coach and still can’t win a championship. Consistent winning requires more than star players and great coaches; it requires teams to have a culture that inspires and enables winning. A little luck helps too.

The same is true in the nonprofit world. Some nonprofits have a char­ismatic founder, an influential board chair, an experienced program di­rector, or someone with an uncanny ability to raise money. It’s a blessing if you have a star player or two on your nonprofit team, and the more stars you have on your team the better. But unless there is a strong team culture unifying the players and coaches, it’s doubtful your non­profit will ever win a major championship.

So, what is culture? It’s the outward expression of how and why a non­profit operates. It consists of one or more of the following ele­ments: moral and ethical nature, guiding beliefs and standards, repeated behav­iors, cherished customs, unspoken understandings, shared inter­ests and values, and distinguishing style, character, and habits.

In simpler terms, culture answers the fun­damental questions, “What does it mean to be part of this board?” (board culture) “What does it mean to be part of this staff?” (staff culture) “What does it mean to be part of this organization?” (organizational culture) Or, as culture is often defined, "How we do things around here" . . ."How we act around here."

For example, if I popped into your board meetings, what would I see? Excellence or mediocrity? Collaboration or contentiousness? Organization or disorganiza­tion? A “get it done!” attitude, or a “get by” attitude?

Why is culture important?

Culture is a First Things First principle because the most innovative and successful nonprofits—gold standard nonprofits—have a unifying force (an ethos) yoking the hearts, minds, and actions of those connected with a nonprofit to fulfill a mission.

If there is no motivating purpose, no shared value system, and no di­rected action, a nonprofit will have a dysfunctional culture. It will be unsure who it is, what it stands for, or where it’s going. Work might be taking place and the nonprofit may be serving a set of deserving benefi­ciaries, and it may even have moments of greatness, but eventually its tendons will snap under the weight of uncertainty and it will hobble with a throbbing limp.

However, when the culture of a nonprofit is well defined, unified, and promoted within, it establishes a foundation on which every operational and programming structure can be built. The result is a prevailing culture that works together as a team, shares a common purpose, perseveres in the face of adversity, has fun, makes a difference—and wins!

Establishing a culture is also a competitive advantage because so many nonprofits know little or nothing about the importance of culture and its benefits. To them, running a nonprofit is like playing pick-up basket­ball—they hope they score a couple of choice players, hit a few three-pointers, and break a good sweat. There is little emphasis on prac­tice and performance, and as long as everyone is having a good time, it doesn’t matter if the team looks confused and takes wild shots.

Money and resources for nonprofits are in short supply. But teams that are intentional, willing to work hard, play smart, and learn from their mistakes will find themselves handsomely rewarded for their passion and efforts with one winning season after another.

Case Study: Family Style Culture

When I started working at Sun Valley Adaptive Sports, there was no culture. Well, that’s not entirely true. There was a culture, but it was the limp and hobbling type.

Structurally, there were no strategic plans, no policies, no job descrip­tions and, like I said, six mission statements. No one was accountable for anything. Staff was unhappy, donors were disappointed, and the or­gani­zation was operating a “wing-it” style of management with most of its energy focused on the fallout of its founder who recently quit.

Staff and board members had personal beliefs and values about the mis­sion of SVAS, but there were no collective beliefs and values. There was no moral compass for the organization, no shared motivation, and no authentic passion. The culture was aimless and dysfunctional because no one knew differently.

My first few days on the job required no work of anyone. Instead, I tried to provide safe, lighthearted environments where staff, volunteers, and board members could share their feelings and express their thoughts, whether personal or about SVAS.

In hopes of getting people to open up, I decided to get staff and volun­teers out of the office and board members out of the boardroom. We had regular meetings at coffeehouses and restaurants. We went moun­tain bike riding and hiking, and we hosted potluck dinners.

The goal was to spend time together to get to know each other on a deeper, more personal level. We talked about quirky habits and hobbies. We talked about hometowns and family. We shared jokes, tragedies, and dreams. I was curious to learn why the staff had chosen to work at SVAS and I wanted to know what motivated board members to join.

Each night, I wrote my thoughts and observations in a journal. After a couple of weeks, I reviewed my notes looking for common threads re­lating to values, beliefs, interests, and motivations of the staff, volun­teers, and board members that lined up with the mission, core values, and purpose of SVAS.

The threads with the most overlap included compassion, wellness, fun, family, sports, recreation, adventure, therapy, and healing. These may seem like obvious threads for an organization that used sports and rec­reation as a means of therapy for people with disabilities. However, I found it interesting that the value and belief people talked about most was the value and belief in “family.”

After sharing my findings with everyone, we agreed SVAS was in the “family” business. We helped families of all shapes and sizes that had a family member or relative with a disability. Our staff and volunteers cared for our participants like family. Each of us had a strong belief in the institution of family and felt family values would make a strong foundation on which to build the culture of SVAS. And so we did.

We started building our family style culture by developing a work envi­ronment centered on safety and sharing, not fear and oppression. At staff meetings, we budgeted time for staff to share personal challenges, relationship issues, financial worries, upcoming surgeries, achievement stories, and parenting troubles. It didn’t take long before staff started referring to itself as a family instead of a team.

Over the years, SVAS did a number of things to build its family style culture. The board combined board meetings with dinner to deepen per­sonal relationships among its members. Staff made meals for coworkers when they were sick, took camping trips together, and volunteered as a team to help other nonprofits in the community. As we became more and more like a family, we started joking, “Now that we’re family, let’s make sure we don’t become dysfunctional!”

Over time, we became protective of our culture. When hiring new staff or nominating board members, the number one topic of discussion about the candidate was, “How would this person fit into our family style culture?” It was more important than the person’s experience, edu­cational background, skill set, wealth, or influence.

SVAS had a lot of messes to sweep up from its early days of manage­ment upheaval and operational calamity. Our strong family style culture not only helped us get rid of the dust and grime, it provided the collec­tive inspiration and driving motivation we used to achieve outra­geous dreams and accomplish audacious goals.

I’m often asked how SVAS was able to grow into an organization of national prominence so quickly. My first response is always the same: “We built a unifying culture early on and remained true to it as we di­rected our passion to fulfill our purpose.” If you desire to build a back­bone of success and gold standard performance, you need to do the same as early in your lifecycle as possible. First things first!

Tactics and Tips

Define a culture early on

If you’re an early stage nonprofit, one of the first priorities your founding members need to agree on is the importance of establishing a culture. Once that’s in place, you can move forward to assess the current culture, define an appropriate culture, and then create a plan to adopt a prevailing culture.

All of this will take five times more time and effort than you expect, and you can count on differences of opinion and a few head-butts. The most painless way to go through the process is to do it as early in your life­cycle as possible, because the earlier you establish a culture the more easily you’ll be able to define it, fold people into it, manage it, and build an organization around it.

If you’ve been in business awhile, the task will be more difficult. The biggest obstacle you’ll face as an older nonprofit is inertia. People—and organizations—get set in their ways and in most instances are reluctant to make changes, especially cultural changes, even if it means improving the work environment, relationships, and quality of service.

To overcome this barrier, find a handful of respected staff and board members willing to champion the undertaking. By taking this route, you’ll find others more willing to follow suit and you’ll increase the chances of a smooth and drama-free adoption and transition process.

If the chief executive and board cannot agree whether to establish a culture, change the current culture, or establish a process of adopting a culture, hire a consultant. Running a nonprofit is difficult enough, so there is no need to create undue tension. A good consultant can facili­tate the process, untangle knots, and keep the atmosphere civil.

I’ve observed all types of organizational cultures and discovered strong cultures share many of the same cultural attributes or “facets,” as I like to call them. Many of the principles and tactics discussed in this book are facets of a strong culture (e.g., authentic passion, accountability, organiza­tion, fulfilling roles and responsibilities, empowering staff, etc.).

I’m sure your team will define many of its own facets, but the ones listed here and throughout the book provide a number of suggestions you can use as you begin to define or evolve your culture. What’s most im­portant is to make it a top priority to define and adopt a culture as early in your life­cycle as possible.

Establish a safe culture

No matter what type of culture you establish, let me suggest adding “safety” as one of the primary facets. People want to work in an envi­ronment where they feel safe physically, intellectually, and creatively, and where they feel respected and valued. Unsafe cultures, where fear of physical and emotional harm is prevalent, will cause people to withdraw and disengage, resulting in workplace tension and poor performance.

A goal of every nonprofit should be to create a culture where people are encouraged to be themselves and to express their opinions, ideas, and personalities without fear of judgment, harassment, or persecution. A safe culture creates a foundation for a happy and productive workplace and boardroom.

This is one of the reasons why it’s important to define a culture early on. If your culture becomes unsafe as a result of hiring and nominating a few people that turn out to be disrespectful and judgmental, you’ll find it difficult to change your culture into a safe one because it’s difficult to change a per­son’s nature. Also, unless a person has done something illegal, it may be difficult to remove them. It’s always easier to hire people than to let them go.

So, if you want your staff and board to share a common set of values that fit into a particular style of culture, say a safe one, you need to be very thorough about the types of values, standards, and beliefs someone holds before you hire them or ask them to join your board.

Why? Because the nonprofit world is fundamentally a human endeavor. You only have staff, volunteers, and board members to run your organi­zation, right? Without people, you can’t do anything—you can’t raise money and you can’t run your programs. This is why it’s imperative to bring on and retain great people because the higher the quality, the better your chances of fulfilling your mission efficiently and effectively.

On the flip side, we’ve all felt the pain of bringing on the wrong people, haven’t we? We’ve hired staff that turn out to be lazy and incompe­tent. We’ve brought on volunteers that turn out to be duds, and we’ve nomi­nated board members that turn out to be apathetic. The result: drama, wasted time, and negativity. If you bring on too many people like this, your ability to fulfill your mission becomes grim.

It’s also expensive. Even if you lighten up the deadweight of your non­profit by asking a board or staff member to resign, you’ll have to spend time and money to find and train replace­ments. Plus, every time you lose someone, high quality or not, you lose “corporate intelligence.” When people leave, no matter what their role, they take all their knowledge and connections with them—and in some cases, this can be ex­tremely ex­pensive, painful, and time-consuming to replace.

This is why it’s imperative that you bring on and retain high quality people. To do this, you need to create robust hiring and nominating “filters,” and then work hard to keep the people you bring on through respected leader­ship, meaningful engagement, frequent gratitude, healthy relationships, professional development, and an occasional good laugh.

Give people a voice

Another important cultural facet you should consider is “voice.” Staff, board members, and volunteers need to feel empowered to share ideas, help make decisions, and speak up about something they don’t like.

If you hire a tyrant for a chief executive, a bulldozer for a board chair, or a know-it-all manager, expect a divisive and contentious culture. Strong, self-centered personalities tend to squelch the voices and feelings of others. This will infect your culture with resentment and negativity, and people will feel their thoughts and feelings don’t matter. Eventually, people will shut down, repel each other, and lose enthusiasm for work and service.

Make it a priority to establish a culture of open communication. Hire and nominate selfless, compassionate leaders who care for the welfare of others and encourage people to share their thoughts and feelings. If you do this, you’ll find people more likely to participate in your directives and fulfill your mission because they feel empowered and respected.

Get personal

If you’re in the nonprofit world long enough, you learn successful nonprofits have cultures that value and encourage close personal rela­tionships. The result is a team spirit atmosphere that is fun, friendly, and resilient. “Getting personal” is another facet for developing a strong culture be­cause relationships play such an important role in the success of nonprofits, especially emerging nonprofits, where the number of staff and board members tends to be small.

When you have a staff of six sharing a 20x15 office, it’s difficult to hide irritations, phobias, and character flaws. Sooner or later, everyone’s true nature unveils itself. The last thing a small and busy nonprofit needs is a reason to dilute its limited resources to babysit ongoing personal drama or passive-aggressive behavior.

One of the tactics you can use to develop close, personal relationships is to get staff, board members, and key volunteers to do fun, social activi­ties together. For example, instead of taking staff out to a restau­rant for lunch, take them on a picnic. Host a board meeting at a board member’s home and kick off the meeting with a wine tasting. Host a chili cook-off and include spouses and children. Take a field trip to the state fair, a sports game, or to a museum. Volunteer as a team to help another wor­thy cause in your area.

If you hold a leadership role at your nonprofit, challenge yourself to lie back and give up control during team building exercises or offsite activi­ties. The purpose of your time with staff, board members, and volun­teers is to have fun and deepen relationships. The last thing they need when you’re all out for a night of bowling is to feel like they are still at “work” with you controlling the show. Talk less, laugh more, and go with the flow.

One of my favorite methods of deepening relationships with staff is asking personal questions in team settings such as a morning meeting, team lunch, or on top of a hill during a team mountain bike ride. Timing is key and I’m careful to ask questions in a manner that flows with the ongoing conversation and seems natural. The goal is to get people to share their thoughts and feelings, and the likelihood of this happening is much higher if they don’t feel like a local reporter is conducting an interview.

Some of my favorite questions include: “What is your favorite hobby?” “What’s one of your quirky habits?” “What is the most unusual pet you ever had?” “What is the funniest memory you have of high school?” We then go around the table and everyone shares a response, most of which bring about howls and laughs for all to enjoy.

As relationships between staff deepen, I start asking more personal questions and the staff begins to ask questions of their own. “If you were forced to parent a foster child, what’s the biggest sacrifice you’d have to make?” “What’s one thing you’ve wanted to accomplish in the last year, but have procrastinated doing?” “If you could relive one event from college, what would it be and how would you relive it?”

These sharing sessions often take unusual tangents and pop the lids off traumatic experiences staff have bottled up for years. The result is a low-key therapeutic exercise that breaks down personal barriers, builds team spirit, and deepens personal relationships. No one is ever forced to share something they feel uncomfortable sharing. There is always an option to “pass” and answer an alternate question.

Strong cultures require healthy personal relationships. Spending time doing fun activities and asking personal questions happen to be my fa­vorite methods to accomplish this task. No matter what methods you use, I suggest setting aside time on a regular basis to allow your staff and board to deepen relationships and build friendships. The stronger per­sonal bonds you create with the people most closely connected to your nonprofit, the stronger and more stable your culture will be.

Care for others

Similar to getting personal, I believe nonprofits should in­clude the val­ues of “kindness and caring” as facets of their culture. The vicis­situdes of life are inevitable, but they can be disruptive. There are no shortages of people who suffer with the flu, struggle to qualify for a home loan, battle with cancer, face the death of a loved one, or find themselves without a car because of a dead battery.

A kind and caring culture creates a neighborly environment of helping others in need. When a board member is sick, have board members pre­pare and deliver a few home-cooked meals. If one of your staff is trying to qualify for a home loan, ask your bookkeeper if she is willing to help review the paperwork. If an intern’s car won’t start because the battery is dead, perhaps a volunteer who lives nearby could drive to her home and jumpstart the car.

So the question is do you show as much care for your fellow board and staff members as you do for the people you serve? It may seem a bit old-fashioned, but a kind and caring culture creates an environment where people feel safe, loved, and appreciated. No, you don’t have to create a Leave it to Beaver workplace environment, but you can create a workplace where people can take comfort in knowing that if something in their life were to turn sour, a team of caring people is close by think­ing of ways to turn their lemons into lemonade.

Reward staff with time off

One of the most satisfying things I like to do to deepen a culture is to reward staff with time off. Staff at nonprofits typically work longer hours and make less money than if they worked for a for-profit equiva­lent. Offering two weeks paid vacation and a dozen national holidays is a good start, but there are other ways to grant time off.

At SVAS, I rewarded staff by offering flextime. The entire staff loved to exercise and enjoy the outdoors (a signature facet of our culture), so as long as we didn’t have an event taking place or a meeting, staff could take an extra hour at lunch to hike, bike, run, or do whatever. They also had the option to work through lunch and leave early. If it was a “pow­der day,” they could come in a couple hours late so they could en­joy a morning of skiing in fresh snow.

Granting unexpected days off is another way to show appreciation for staff. I randomly gave staff a paid day off if they had achieved a major milestone, or had sacrificed a weekend day to work a special event. I also awarded additional days off during the holidays to create long weekends, and offered additional paid time off when staff members faced difficult circumstances such as severe illness, trauma, or a family death.

During my fourth year at SVAS, full-time staff received an average of seven weeks off a year. They also received paid time off to attend con­tinuing education conferences and training seminars. Staff earned their time off, but it was also a juicy perk. They were proud and thankful for our culture, and it became the culture of envy of many businesses and nonprofits in town.

Adding flextime and unexpected time off to your culture will keep burn­out rates down, morale high, and validate the hard work of your committed team. It will also help build a culture where staff feels valued, their personal time is respected, and their hard work is appreciated.

Reinforce cultural messages

Once you establish a culture, you must nurture it by reminding people. Your staff should hold meetings to discuss the effect of your culture on operations, administration, fundraising, and programming. Board mem­bers should discuss the topic of organizational culture, board culture, and staff culture at its strategic planning sessions. Your volunteer coordi­nator should ensure volunteers understand your organizational culture and how it applies to their work.

I found staff and board members appreciated cultural reminders. Some­times I would send an email to staff with one of our values written in it, along with a blurb about what it meant to a particular project we were working on. At other times, I would facilitate board culture discussions at board meetings to remind members to work with staff on a volunteer project or to host a social activity to deepen personal relationships.

You’ll find the more you talk with staff, board members, and volunteers about the values, beliefs, and facets of culture your nonprofit espouses, the more likely they are to adopt and uphold them.

Perhaps the best cultural reminder is the manifestation of your culture in the lives and actions of your leaders. If a facet of your culture is “open­ness” and your supervisors are willing to share personal goals, work chal­lenges, and profes­sional aspirations, you can expect your staff to follow suit. If your board has a culture where board members are re­quired to spear­head an initiative, they will be more likely to fulfill their obligations if they know the board chair is fulfilling his obligations by spearheading an initiative.

In the end, sustaining a culture and all its facets is not a top down or bottom-up thing; it’s circular. It’s your responsibility, and the respon­sibility of your leaders, to draw the circle early on and continue tracing it throughout the life of your nonprofit.


A strong, well-defined culture is one of the key cornerstones you must put in place if you want to be a gold standard nonprofit. Once it’s in place and functioning well, your culture becomes a collective mindset and moral beacon for all that your nonprofit says and does, and it be­comes a powerful and unifying force to propel you to your dreams.

As a result, challenges become successes. Goals become realities. Staff and board drama fade, and all the people connected to your nonprofit feel connected.

It’s important to create a custom culture to fit the needs of your non­profit. I believe nonprofit cultures should be personal; create work­place and boardroom environments that are safe, kind, caring, and transpar­ent; respect people and give them a voice; express praise and gratitude; cen­ter on excellence and accountability; and be ad­vanced by compassionate leaders willing to walk the walk and inspire others to do the same.

But that’s my take. The culture you create can include any combination of values, interests, principles, styles, behaviors, and identities every­one in your organization believes in and is willing to adopt and promote.

The task of developing a culture is a challenging one. You’ll find the un­dertaking less stressful and the success rate much higher if you establish a culture early on because it’s much easier to create a culture when a nonprofit is small, than to change one when it’s large.

If you’re in the nonprofit world, you’re in the people business—staff, board members, volunteers, clients, donors, and business partners. And people like to work, play, and do business with people they like, trust, and enjoy being around, right? This is why it’s so important to be patient and work hard to bring on and retain the highest quality people possible.

Once they’re on board, you’ll want to make sure you fold them into a strong culture because it’s the unifying force and driving spirit your team of high quality people will need to win a championship!

Additional Resources:

Tom Iselin

“Rated one of America’s 10 Best Retreat Facilitators”

Tom Iselin has built four sector-leading nonprofits and four foundations. He’s written six books, sits on six boards, and hosts a video blog and podcast. Each year, Tom speaks to more than 5,000 nonprofit leaders at conferences across the country. He is considered a leading authority on high-performance nonprofits, and his impact on the industry has been featured on CNN, Nightline, and in Newsweek. Tom is the president of First Things First, a business specializing in board retreats, strategic planning, fundraising, and executive coaching. To relax, he loves mountain biking, hiking, skiing, tennis, and baking.

If you’re in the hunt for one of the best board retreat/board development facilitators, or one of the best strategic planning facilitators, it would be a privilege to learn more about your organization and the aspirations you hope to achieve as you work to propel your noble mission. Jot me an email to set up a meet-and-greet call.

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