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Nonprofit Culture - Prevailing Culture Defined (episode 13, part 2 of 10)

Updated: Apr 24

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, strives for excellence, perseveres in the face of adversity, has fun—and wins! Watch the video, or read below to learn more!

Intended Audience:

Executives, Board Members, Staff.

About the Series:

Welcome to my Nonprofit Leadership series "How to Build a Gold Standard Nonprofit."

Whether you're a seasoned executive director, or new to the nonprofit world, this video series of 21 videos will give you a set of tools and principles (and good reminders) that will help take your staff, board, organization, to the next level of performance and impact.

The videos are short. There is no mumbo-jumbo theory, just wise advice and practical tactics you can use and apply immediately. It all comes from though lessons I've learned while building eight nonprofits over the last 20 years.

I'll be sending out one video a week. For those who want to binge on the series, or if you missed an episode, you can find them all (and more) on my YouTube Channel -- The Nonprofit Mentor.

Save These Videos

Save these emails in a folder and send them to staff once a week. Or, show one or a two at every board meeting. You can even use them when on-boarding staff, board members, or volunteers. Enjoy and Learn!


PS: You can read more high-quality leadership content in the bestselling books below. (50% off)

by Tom Iselin

“America’s Best Board Retreat Facilitator”

Hi, Tom Iselin, here . . . and welcome to First Things First. This is Day 13 of Boot Camp—A Leadership Guide to Building a Gold Standard Nonprofit. Today, I’m continuing the series on how to create a “Get it Done!” CULTURE – and WHY it’s so important to define a culture for your nonprofit.

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

If there is no motivating purpose, no shared value system, and no di­rected action, a nonprofit will wind up with 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, strives for excellence, perseveres in the face of adversity, has fun—and wins!

Like I said last week, your mission tells people what you do. Your vision tells people where you’re going. But your culture tells people who you ARE! It tells people what you stand for! It SHOWS people what you BELIEVE! It creates a holistic environment that unites everyone connected to your nonprofit.

At the time I rescued 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 it had six mission statements—yes, six! 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 Adaptive Sports, 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 Adaptive Sports.

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 Adaptive Sports 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 Adaptive Sports.

The threads with the most overlap included compassion, wellness, fun, family, sports, adventure, 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 Adaptive Sports 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 Adaptive Sports. And so we did.

L>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—a “Team Family.”

Over the years, Adaptive Sports 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.

Adaptive Sports 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.

I’m often asked how Adaptive Sports 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, if you want to build a “Get it Done!” nonprofit, you need to start by building a strong, well-defined culture—and the sooner the better!

Well, that’s today. Tune in next week, when I’ll continue the subject of why it’s important to build a culture sooner than later. And don’t forget to write me. Ask me a question or tell me what you’d like see on the show. Until next week . . . Who-ya!

Tom Iselin

“America’s Best Board Retreat and Strategic Planning Facilitator”

Additional Resources:


Tom's Books, Podcasts, and YouTube Channel

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 America's best board retreat and strategic planning facilitator and is 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 development retreats, strategic planning, fundraising, executive coaching, and speaking. To relax, he loves mountain biking, hiking, skiing, tennis, and baking.

If you’re in the hunt for the best board retreat/board development facilitation, or the best strategic planning facilitation, 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.

To learn more, visit:


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