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Organizational Management

Your Nonprofit Culture Can Be Ruined by These 3 Common Traps

Author: Terry Ibele
January 19, 2018
🕑 6 min read

I’ve seen some nonprofits unintentionally create toxic (and downright annoying) work expectations that ultimately deter the creation of strong, functional teams.

Take this example from Colin, who worked for an organization that managed a zip-lining course as part of a summer camp enrichment program for youth.

At the camp, every employee had to complete the high ropes portion of the course “together” as part of the on-boarding process.

“While the supposed goal was to help us find our rhythm as a new team through communication and collaboration, I was left terrified, embarrassed and genuinely concerned about the sanity of the people I had just started working for,” Colin said. “Crying about your fear of heights in front of your new boss doesn’t really make you feel like a particularly valuable or component team member either.”

Even though the board at Colin’s camp thought they were creating a strong culture through the high ropes course, it had the exact opposite effect.

If you’re at an organization where you actually want to build a strong nonprofit culture of teamwork (and attract professional and talented staff), here are three common traps to avoid and what to do instead.

Trap 1) Expecting Work to Be Your Staff’s Identity

Nonprofit Culture

Nonprofit employees are some of the most passionate people I know when it comes to their work. That’s because they’re changing the world (quite literally).

But, just because they care and feel a deeply personal connection to their profession, doesn’t mean your organization is their whole world — and it shouldn’t be.

All too often I see leaders send both explicit and implicit messages about time spent at work being synonymous with dedication to the organization — they say things like,

“Crazy hours are expected in our industry.” or “You want to further the mission, don’t you?”

Whether it’s pressure to stay late to work an event or being on-call to answer a work email during family time, this sort of exploitation of employee commitment can backfire, ultimately resulting in professional burnout.

What to Do Instead

If you want to increase productivity and foster genuine, long-lasting dedication to your organization, you can shift unhealthy nonprofit culture by establishing systems that not only promote, but require reasonable work-life balance for employees.

Some suggestions from Harvard Professor Lakshmi Ramarajan, and Boston University

Assistant Professor Erin Reid include:

  • Minimize time-based rewards. For example, employing a strict attendance, or clock-in policy can motivate people in the wrong way to simply show up, rather than be productive.
  • Protect your staff’s personal lives. Most nonprofits leave it to staff to figure out a good work/life balance. The problem with this is many end up prioritising work over their life. Some nonprofits I know have required time off.
  • Celebrate and encourage non-work identities. If managers or EDs only identify staff or volunteers by their work-related roles.

Happy Nonprofit Culture

There are also a number of self-care activities you can encourage your team to do, which can have a drastic increase on the mental health and productivity of your team. Co-authors of The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit, Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman offer some insights like:

  • Eat communal meals with your coworkers
  • Create a space for an exercise room to allow staff to “let off steam.”
  • Install standing desks, since “sitting is the new smoking.”
  • And more.

You can read more of their tips, plus find a link to their book here.

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Trap 2) Forcing Staff to Do “Fun” Team Building Exercises

Nonprofit Culture

Often, the forced engagement of “fun” team building exercises, like the one Colin endured, can leave employees feeling awkward and turned off to the organization. You don’t need to actually go on a zipline to schedule school groups and serve sack lunches. No one wants to untangle a human knot, and can we just establish an official moratorium on “Two Truths and Lie?”

Forbes recently noted that a reliance on these types of strategies often signals a leadership issue. More often than not, a challenging team culture indicates a lack of clarity, honesty and structure from above rather than a need for more ice cream socials or three-legged races.

What to Do Instead

I’ve seen (and been part of) many effective strategies when it comes to team building. Here is what I’ve learned.

Leaders can offer regular supervisory support and team-wide meetings to allow expectation setting to occur more naturally. One-on-one mentoring pairs also provide an opportunity for trusting relationships to form without the unrealistic pressure of pleasing and becoming friends with an entire group of new people.

Leaders can also encourage informal meeting venues to relax the environment like lunches, coffee or a chat while walking off the office’s campus. Grabbing a coffee with a co-worker is a lot less intimidating and can foster a much more authentic connection than having all eyes on you during an egg drop competition.

With effective structures in place, relationships are going to form between employees — that’s how humans work. Forcing it just breeds resentment and discomfort.

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Trap 3) Not Letting Your Employees Be Human

Nonprofit Culture

Many organizations establish a set of core values like honesty, transparency, integrity, respect, etc.

Unfortunately, I’ve also seen some organizations take these core values as black and white, allowing no space to be human — and that’s when they become a problem.

On one hand, it is true that establishing core organizational values can certainly help unite teams through a shared vision and sense of collective identity. But on the other hand, I’ve seen some organizations set values like “honesty” become fraught when the environment turns so “ethical” or “holier than thou” that it no longer serves as a safe place to make mistakes or tell the truth — things that make us human at the core.

Nonprofits work with many dynamic groups of people with competing interests like board members, donors, volunteers and local community members, which can make decision making extremely complicated. I’ve even heard of some employees lieing to protect their own interests, jobs, bosses, or to simply appease the group for consensus building.

An environment steeped in an overly simplified framework of honesty or “good” vs. “bad”, can effectively force employees into positions of shame and deceit.

What to Do Instead

Erline Belton reveals that leaders can shape the work environment to welcome “truth telling” in a number of ways. Leaders must be vulnerable models of telling the whole truth, even when it’s difficult. There may still be consequences of course, but this establishes telling the truth as an organizational norm. Honesty cannot be exclusive to personal decisions made by leaders, but includes access to all pertinent information concerning the organization’s history, future, finances, etc as well. Creating an open and honest culture will help employees reach out for help and guidance when faced with difficult choices.

The nonprofit employees I know are good people who want to do good in the world, but we live and work in a complex world that often requires complex decision making. At the end of the day, it’s up to leaders to create supportive spaces that acknowledge that complexity, instead of punishing employees for being human.

So, when it comes to nonprofit culture and team building, create clear and reasonable expectations and let employees take the lead from there. Leveraging relationships for the good of the organization can only happen when those relationships are genuine and when employee commitment to the vision is intrinsically motivated, not externally forced.

“When I went searching for my next job in the nonprofit world, I decided to frankly tell my story during the interview process,” said Colin. “When it got an understanding laugh, it really helped me establish whether the organization was one that I wanted to work for. When I saw that my future manager could see my point of view — that “fun” doesn’t have that same meaning for everyone and being put in crap situations like that wasn’t productive — I really got excited about getting the job.”

Nonprofit work is hard enough, team members need freedom and space to be whole people with agency and multifaceted lives.

If you and your team set practices into place to avoid the above three traps, you’ll be well on your way to building a strong nonprofit culture.

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