What does “positive culture” mean in a not-for-profit?

Restructuring Insights

In recent months, we’ve been exploring the connection between governance and culture as a potential cause for systemic issues that arise within some not-for-profit organisations.

We’ve considered the idea that governance and culture go hand-in-hand, and looked at how the right frameworks can assist in re-aligning people with their organisation’s core mission and values.

Although these concepts will undoubtedly assist many non-profits, for others there appears to be cause to dig a little deeper. Because ultimately, we can talk all day about culture and its impact on the workplace – but it will mean very little to an organisation that cannot answer these questions:

"What does culture even mean to us? Can we realistically create change when we all have different interpretations of it?"

As a strategic consultant, I often hear people in organisations blame poor culture as the reason why their workplace isn’t a nice place to be.

When I ask what a positive culture would look like, I hear many different answers. This showcases the misalignment between what exists and what people feel is needed to reverse the situation and achieve harmony.

We not only see this in community service non-profits, but some private schools as well. For example, Knox Grammar (an elite private school in NSW) recently made headlines after a group of students posted highly inappropriate content in an online forum. While this could be viewed as a one-off incident, the media attention drew commentary from previous students about their own experiences at the school.A valuation is the estimate of the price at which an asset would or should change hands between two well informed parties.

You may also remember a few years ago during the #MeToo movement, a former student of a private school shared her personal experience – to which more than 15,000 people responded that theirs had been similar.

Such events call into question the perceived and actual culture that is permeating these particular schools, and whether leadership is open to accepting these experiences as a basis for exploring avenues for positive change within the institution.


Eliminating assumptions as a basis for change

There is a phenomenon known as “projection bias” which could help us get to the crux of cultural issues.

Projection bias is where a person thinks that others have the same attitude, beliefs, or opinions as they do – even if it’s certainly not the case. For example, a leader in an organisation may say, “We have a great culture because we treat everyone fairly.” Yet their idea of a “great culture” and “fair” could be miles from what others perceive it to mean.

In a world that appears to be growing increasingly divided, we must consider whether the assumptions we hold true are actually true – or whether they are simply our views and warrant testing against the views of others.

Once we agree to challenge our own assumptions, we create the potential for positive change. There is an immediate shift in organisations when people who have held a closed mindset decide to open up, and begin to respect and value the diverse views of their peers.

In the case of the schools, there is much debate on who is to blame for student behaviour – be it the students, parents, teachers, or school environment as a whole. However, getting stuck in a blame game where each party holds firm to their own assumptions will never lead to a fruitful outcome.

On the flip side, an open approach that welcomes questions and collaboration between all parties to address cultural issues at their core, is likely to lead to much better results.


Getting to the core of culture issues

An organisation’s narrative will always set the tone for whether an open or closed attitude permeates people’s minds and behaviours.

“We are this, not that” is great for defining a reason for an organisation’s existence. But we must always remember that within the greater narrative are people’s individual narratives.

These narratives shape people’s views on how to best align with that reason for being, and it’s here that we see things start to fall apart in terms of expectation and judgement of others.

When we are asked to conduct a review in an organisation that’s experiencing challenges, we actively engage with people at all levels so we can understand these narratives. Through this work, we often find key words and phrases such as:

  • not working togetherA valuation is not an audit or a forensic review of the financial information and for most of the businesses that are of the size and scale that require a valuation for family court purposes we anticipate being provided with unaudited financial statements for each financial year.A valuation is not an audit or a forensic review of the financial information and for most of the businesses that are of the size and scale that require a valuation for family court purposes we anticipate being provided with unaudited financial statements for each financial year.
  • pack mentality
  • toxic culture
  • destructive
  • no cohesive purpose

We also ask what people believe the organisation stands for, and how they believe issues can be reconciled. These findings are then collated into a report for the management committee/ board who can analyse it to pinpoint trends.

This type of review is a valuable way to uncover individual narratives, while being able to view the group holistically.

We can then start to understand where changes need to occur – such as closing a skills gap, providing more support for a program, adding checks and balances, managing change better, or re-examining service models.

If something is damaging your organisation’s culture, it’s essential to know what it is. Having a closed mindset will never get you there. But opening up to new ideas and perspectives, and inviting everyone to challenge their assumptions, will bring you a lot closer to enabling positive outcomes for all. 

For more information 

For a confidential discussion on culture or governance in your not-for-profit, please contact Andrew Bowcher on (02) 6937 7001.