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Nonprofit Culture - Build One Early (episode 15, part 4 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. Building a culture early on is important because it's a lot easier to fold people into a healthy culture than to try to change an unhealthy culture, or than to try to change people. Learn how to build a "get it done" culture rooted in authentic passion.

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 15 of Boot Camp—A Leadership Guide to Building a Gold Standard Nonprofit. Today, I’m continuing the series on how to build a “Get it Done!” CULTURE.

In this episode, I’ll be covering the “elements and facets” that make up a culture. You’ll need to understand these concepts as you build the structure of your culture—whether it’s a board culture, staff culture, or organizational culture. Ok, let’s get started with a quick review. Do you remember what the definition of culture is?

(SLIDE1) If you recall, culture is the outward expression of how and why a nonprofit operates. Or, if you’re talking about board culture . . . Culture is the outward expression of how and why a board operates. If you’re talking about staff culture . . . Culture is the outward expression of how and why a staff operates.

Culture is an abstract concept like happiness and beauty . . . this is why it’s often easy to spot, but difficult to define. For example, we all know what it’s like to walk into a toxic work environment, or into a boardroom filled with disengaged board members . . . You can SEE that the culture is unhealthy.

People’s faces are long. Their brows are furrowed and they smirk instead of smile. Conversations can be short, rude, and contentious. And in some cases, you can sense that some people are worried, fearful, and stressed out. Unfortunately, this is the cultural reality of many nonprofits, but it’s far from the IDEAL culture we imagine when we think of culture at a nonprofit, right? . . .

(SLIDE 2) In simplest terms, culture answers the fundamental questions: What does it mean to part of your organization? What does it mean to be on your board? What does it mean to be on your staff? What does it mean to be a volunteer?

(SLIDE 3) See, your mission tells people what you do. Your vision tells people where you are going. But your culture tells people who you ARE? It tells people what you Stand for? . . . It tells people what you Believe.

L> This is important to understand because if you don’t know – collectively – who you are, what you stand for, or what you believe . . . how can you effectively fulfill your mission . . . how can you expect you’ll end up where you want to go?

(SLIDE 4) One of the primary reasons why sooo many nonprofits hobble along and never seem to hit their stride and achieve success, is because they don’t have a culture.

The reason why it’s imperative to develop a well-defined culture for an organization, board, or staff is that it creates a unifying force – and ethos – that yokes the hearts, minds, and actions of everyone connected with the nonprofit to fulfill its mission . . . It creates a holistic environment, a prevailing spirit that permeates everything that is said and done.

(SLIDE 5) Now, when defining a culture, you’ll want to consider what cultural ELEMENTS you want to include. There are many to choose from and you certainly don’t have to include all of them. Some elements include a nonprofit’s distinguishing style, character, and habits. Shared interests, values, and successes. Normative practices, cherished customs, and ethical nature.

But no elements are more important, and none will define your culture more clearly, especially a “Get it Done!” culture, than your guiding beliefs, standards, and behaviors. If you build your organizational or board culture around just these three elements: guiding beliefs, standards, and behaviors -- you’ll be in great shape.

All right, once you’ve decided on the types of elements you’d like to include in the make up of your culture, you’ll want to come up with the specific, descriptive terms and phases that help you DEFINE your culture.

These are called cultural “facets.” To come up with these terms and phrases, you’ll want to host a brainstorming session. The purpose of the session is to discuss what type of culture you’d like to have, and then come up with words and phrases that symbolize it.

(SLIDE 6) If you want to build a “Get it Done!” board culture – and you should – here are a few words you can use to symbolize it. Imagine building a board culture – an Ethos – that strives for excellence to get work done, makes things happen, raises money, has tremendous impact, and has fun in process. And there’s more: imagine a culture that thrives on teamwork, accountability, honest communication, and provides a safe and empowering work environment.

Isn’t this the type of board culture we all want!? Isn’t this the type of prevailing Ethos we’d all like to have in our boardrooms? I’m sure you and your team could come up with many words and phrases to describe YOUR “Get it Done!” culture.

Take action and get your board members into a room and brainstorm what type of culture the board would like to have and then find words to symbolize it.

Remember, when building a board culture, the fundamental question you need answer is . . . “What does it mean to be part of this board?” “What guiding beliefs should we follow?” “What standards should we uphold?” “What behaviors should we model?”

(SLIDE 7) As I said, there are many types of cultural facets and here are some more. Is it important for your culture to be “organized” and “professional?” Do you want your culture to be rooted in authenticity?

You could list dozens of cultural facets in your effort to define a culture. But let me give a huge tip: You’ll be most successful by spending time to determine which facets best define the “essence” of the type of culture you’d like have. Again, think essence, think “Ethos!”

After whittling your facets down to the “essence” of what your culture represents, you can move forward and write a “culture statement.”

(SLIDE 8) A culture statement is nothing more than a two- or three-sentence narrative of the cultural elements and facets you defined. Take a few seconds to read this one.

Once you’ve written a culture statement, you can share it and claim it just like you do with your mission and vision statements. Put it on the wall, write in your annual report, list at the top of your board agenda, and talk about at strategic planning sessions.

In the end, you’ll have a mission statement that says what you do; a vision statement that says where you’re going; and a culture statement that says who you are, what you stand for, and what you believe. What could be better than that?!

Wow, that’s a lot to digest for one day! And there’s more to come . . . Over the next few episodes, I’m going to talk about a few cultural facets that all nonprofits should consider adopting when building an organizational culture. So stay tuned . . . and don’t forget to write me. Ask me a question or tell me what you’d like see on the show. Until next time . . . Who-ya!

Until then, create a great day! . . . Whooya!

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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