Do you have an accidental organization culture?

We’ve all been there. Working for a company or organization we love, but that is just so internally dysfunctional it makes it impossible to do the work.

Or an organization with such crazy interpersonal dynamics that it just requires too much mental and emotional labor to be worth it.

More often than not, this isn’t a result of bad people, but rather a lack of intention when it comes to creating an organizational culture. Bad cultures usually happen on accident.

Whatever your past, you know what you don’t want to see in your organization. That’s why it’s vital to intentionally create your organizational culture from Day 1.

Because, if you aren’t intentional about your culture, it’s going to develop anyway. With our without your thoughtful input.

Nonprofits are especially susceptible to “accidental org culture”. You start a fabulous organization because you are passionate about the results you know can provide, and you are laser focussed on the work. It makes sense. It’s important work! But that’s where many nonprofits start down the slippery slope of letting their org culture develop on it’s own instead of intentionally crafting it.

Your org culture is embedded into every aspect of your organization. From how you approach your contracts and funding to how you handle internal HR issues. Many founders make the mistake of thinking that it doesn’t matter at the outset. They mistakenly believe that you’ve got to have a certain number of staff or have certain income levels in order to worry about organization culture.

That’s how you end up with bad, unintentional, accidental, and often dysfunctional culture. And a dysfunctional culture can sink your dreams and prevent you from making the impact you know you can make.

So how do you intentionally create your organizational culture?

Visualize & Document:

Sit down and brainstorm with your team, or just take some time alone and write out what your ideal organizational culture looks like. How do staff communicate? How do staff take ownership of their work? What happens when there are problems? How do you want to feel everyday when you go to work? These are some great questions to get your juices flowing and really think about what it is you want.

Write these down and aggregate them into a list of maybe 5-10 goal statements for your organization. These goals for your organizational culture should feed directly into and support your organization's mission statement.

When you feel like you have a solid list of organizational culture goals, document and publish them somewhere that every staff member has access to.

Create Systems Where You Can:

Once you have your goals, start to think about where you can create systems that support those goals. Maybe one of your goals is a “360 Feedback Culture”. A system that can support that could be an effective 360 Performance Review process that has continual “check ins” through the year. Look at what systems you can put into place that support your goals. Putting systems in place will be the backbone of your organization and its culture. It might feel a bit “formal” at first,  but having a documented structure in place lets everyone know where they stand, clearly outlines goals, and supports your team when they have issues.


One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen founders make is assuming that their team or know the org culture. It never ever hurts to continually reinforce the commitment to your mission and beliefs in order to ensure those you are working with are aware of the culture you want to support.

Overcommunication helps in a few ways.

First, it shows your team that you aren’t making empty promises that you’ll forget about. How many times have you gone to some team building event only to have your boss never bring up the “lessons learned” again? So many of us have been through that, and it’s a morale killer. It’s also a set-up for dysfunction.

Second, overcommunication serves to remind staff of what they need to be working towards, especially when you think they might be letting things slide. It’s a helpful, productive way to help your team work at their best.

Third, by constantly communicating the culture you want to foster, you are letting your team and partners know you are willing to be held accountable. If you are constantly talking about and ideal like 360 feedback, but don’t seem to be modeling that to your team, they are more likely to let you know issues they might observe if they see that you are showing consistent commitment to making it happen.

Unless you never plan on partnering with anyone or hiring anyone, it’s never too early to set your intentions for your organizational culture. Too many founders make the mistake of thinking that since it’s just them, or just 1 or 2 staff members that this isn’t important. I would argue that it’s MOST important when you are small and starting. As with anything, get into the good habits now before you fall into bad habits and have to unlearn them because they’ve created problems. Even if it’s just you, it’s worthwhile to sit down and visualize the organizational culture you want to see as you grow.