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How Can Foundations Establish a Change-Making Culture?

Culture: the way we do things around here. This common phrase diminishes the importance of culture. Cultivating an intentional change-making culture is imperative for foundations that want to move from grant making to change making. Culture is a critical strategy for large-scale change and involves the consistent, long-term promotion of the values, norms, and daily behaviors that allow people, organizations, and communities to align their actions in a disciplined way. Culture is part of the answer to why some social change initiatives achieve transformational results while others do not. Organizational culture has been widely discussed in other domains, but is strikingly absent in both the practice of and academic literature on philanthropy.

While foundations’ internal culture is a critical element to achieving large-scale social change, efforts to intentionally build it are too often left out of strategy processes. Foundations may not prioritize conversations about culture due to lack of market forces and accountability and the tendency to value expertise above all else. Some foundations might not see change making as their core purpose. Emotional barriers can also get in the way; discussing culture can cause discomfort by shedding light on leadership weaknesses and can feel luxurious when there is urgent mission-driven work to be done. What will it take for foundations to focus on an internal change-making culture? We bet that foundations will adopt a change-making culture in response to a desire for a new way of doing things among the millennial talent base. Foundations will need new leaders at all levels and want top talent to consider them rewarding places to work. Furthermore, foundations will want to uphold their reputation; foundations risk losing influence if they can’t adapt, innovate, and take risks to solve social problems.

While there is no one culture that suits every foundation, a particular set of characteristics must be present in those that seek large-scale social change: a focus on outcomes, transparency, authenticity, collaboration, equity and inclusion, continuous learning, and openness to risk. Foundations can start building a change-making culture by prioritizing the conversation about culture; teams should be able to see the connection between internal behaviors, external impact, and social outcomes. Moments of change, such as strategic planning or new collaborative engagements with the community, can be natural entry points to engage teams in this conversation.

Here are several criteria for success in establishing a change-making culture:

  1. Reflecting on a powerful question to start the process: What are the behaviors you expect of your peers that you’re also willing to hold yourself accountable to?
  2. A co-creative process engaging the full team and leadership.
  3. Articulating norms and behaviors.
  4. Behaviors selected for their contribution to driving results.
  5. Simple, memorable taglines for norms that make it easier to hold yourself and others accountable.
  6. Behaviors enforced inside and outside the organization.
  7. An adaptable ongoing journey.

Read the full article in The Foundation Review for more details about creating, maintaining, and refining change-making cultures within foundations and to read about foundations that have taken significant steps to implement change-making cultures.

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Amy Celep

About Amy Celep

As CEO of Community Wealth Partners, Amy Celep guides the organization’s strategic direction and oversees its more than 20 employees in their efforts to support partners in solving problems at the magnitude they exist. Amy was named to this role in April 2010, and since then has led the organization in developing and implementing a new strategy for greater impact, while achieving 50 percent revenue growth and securing a marquee list of partners. See Amy's full bio

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