To Go Further, Get Serious About Culture

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

This blog was originally posted on the Collective Impact Forum blog. See the original post here.

We’ve all witnessed the importance of culture in organizations. Many leaders have seen their efforts fall apart because their team wasn’t aligned or power dynamics impeded their progress. On the other hand, others have been part of teams that built such a deep sense of trust that they took greater risks and ultimately achieved greater change.

Culture can speed up or slow down progress because, at the end of the day, we’re complex humans working with other complex humans. These same dynamics are at play in collaborative efforts such as collective impact initiatives. If we want to be successful at collective impact, stakeholders must define and tend to a shared culture across the collaborative.

While many of us can attest to the importance of culture from our experience working inside organizations, our research at Community Wealth Partners backs it up. When we examined various transformational initiatives that involved multiple stakeholders, including the anti-malaria movement and anti-smoking movement, in every instance, an intentional culture emerged as a necessary element in achieving dramatic change. And though each culture will be unique, the cultures in these change-making initiatives shared several characteristics:

  • A focus on outcomes
  • Transparency
  • Authenticity
  • Collaboration and partnership
  • Equity and inclusion
  • Continuous learning and improvement
  • Openness to risk and change

Whether your collective is newly formed or has worked together for years, you can take concrete steps to build, strengthen and maintain culture.

How to Build Culture in a Collective

Culture is defined as the “way we do things around here” or, more formally, the values (what we care about) and behaviors (specific actions to live out the values) that guide how we interact. Explicitly stating values and behaviors can help inform a group’s decisions and how individuals interact with each other. It can prove particularly important in moments of tension, grounding groups in shared values and helping them productively work through conflict.

A first step in getting intentional about culture is to start a conversation about what core values guide the group’s collaboration. You’ll want just a few values, ideally no more than five. The clearer and more concise they are, the easier they will be for members of the collective to remember. For example, one of the Arizona Early Childhood Alliance’s values is “respectful dialogue”—it’s short, sweet and easy to recall.

The next step is determining how these values can be lived out through behaviors. While many groups recognize the importance of clarifying their values, few articulate associated behaviors. Yet getting detailed on what, exactly, collaborative members can do to live out values is crucial to turning lofty ideas into clear action. When articulating behaviors, make sure to keep the group’s broader goals in mind and tie behaviors to the outcomes you’re seeking. Group members might start a discussion about behaviors by asking themselves: What are the behaviors I expect of my partners and to which I’m also willing to hold myself accountable? One of the ways the Arizona Early Childhood Alliance wanted to demonstrate their value of “respectful dialogue” was to “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Aligning on these behaviors is important, but perhaps even more critical is building commitment among all group members to hold themselves and each other accountable to them.

Adapted from the Stanford Social Innovation Review article “Cocreating a Change-Making Culture.”

These conversations provide a great opportunity to address power dynamics, which can limit a group’s progress. Power dynamics inevitably exist—between funders and grantees or around race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, socioeconomic status and other identities. As a group, discuss structures that might help you recognize, equalize and manage power dynamics. For example, the Kauffman Foundation’s Early Education Funders Collaborative adopted a one-vote policy in which all funders, regardless of the size of their grant, would have the same decision-making power. Other collaboratives have created shared-leadership structures and rotating leadership roles.

How to Maintain Culture

Culture-building isn’t a task or onetime project. You must continually nurture culture and revisit it. It helps to create mechanisms to recognize when the culture is being lived out and when the group falls short. This might include shout-outs in meetings where team members recognize moments in which they’ve seen each other uphold the values or a space for team members to share feedback with each other. The culture will be tested as the group welcomes new members, shifts its strategies and responds to new dynamics. As new members join the collective, you’ll also want to give them an opportunity to shape and commit to the culture. It also helps to revisit the behaviors and ensure they’re leading to the collaborative’s desired results. We’ve found it helpful to go through the process of revisiting values and behaviors as often as every three years.

When it comes down to it, culture is often seen as a nice-to-have, yet we believe culture is critical if a group hopes to truly transform communities. To make the change we seek through collective impact initiatives, we have to do the hard and rewarding work of co-creating a strong culture.

For more resources on culture, take a look at the SSIR article “Cocreating a Change-Making Culture,” the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Culture Resource Guide and the Collective Impact Forum blog post The Culture of Collective Impact by Paul Schmitz.

To read the original post, head over to the Collective Impact Forum blog.

July Must-Reads

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Each month, we gather five new resources that can help us work smarter, think more deeply and more effectively contribute to the change we seek. This month’s reads cover what went wrong in a global effort to reduce open-fire cooking, a conversation about the role of data and foundations in fighting racism, how organizations can create a strong culture, trends in charitable giving, and how collaborations can navigate challenges in sharing data.

1. Undercooked: An Expensive Push to Save Lives and Protect the Planet Falls Short

STRATEGY | ProPublica | 18-minute read

After eight years and $75 million, efforts by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves have seen only modest progress. The stoves distributed haven’t effectively reduced users’ risk of deadly illnesses, if they’re used at all, and the environmental impact of cooking fires has proven to be less harmful than initially thought. So what went wrong? And what can we learn from this effort? This article raises valuable questions we can ask ourselves as we seek to strengthen our own change efforts.

2. Conversation about Data and Racism

EQUITY | Chronicle of Philanthropy & Twitter Feed

Philanthropy’s Racism Problem Stems From Too Little Data

(4-minute read) To guide their actions on diversity, equity and inclusion, foundations need to understand the demographics of the organizations and communities they’re granting to (or not), say Michelle Greanias and Melissa Sines of PEAK Grantmaking.

Response from Jennifer Lentfer

(1-minute read) Yes, and while data is important, foundations must also question their power and how they might exacerbate inequalities in asking for this information, says Jennifer Lentfer of Thousand Currents.

3. How Leaders Can Strengthen Their Organizational Culture

CULTURE | Stanford Social Innovation Review | 7-minute read 

The social sector isn’t immune to toxic individuals and cultures. To counter that, we should not only hold ourselves accountable for what we accomplish, but also for how we accomplish it, argues Alexa Cortes Culwell of Open Impact. Leaders should ask four questions: 1) Are your organization’s values and cultural norms explicitly stated? 2) Does your organization have policies in place to ensure that everyone, especially top leadership, is held accountable? 3) Does your organization have policies in place to support diversity, equity and inclusion at all levels? And 4) Does your revenue model take into account fair and equitable employee compensation? For more on creating a strong culture, including 10 steps to guide your culture efforts, take a look at our article, “Cocreating a Change-Making Culture.”

4. 6 Signs of Trouble Ahead in Charitable Giving

SECTOR TRENDS | Chronicle of Philanthropy | 2-minute read 

Although charitable giving was at its highest in 2017, several trends suggest the future of philanthropy might be shaky. The percentage of Americans who donate is declining among every age group, income level and education level, leaving nonprofits to increasingly rely on wealthy individuals. At the same time, groups are getting creative in how they raise money.

5. Data Sharing Within Cross-Sector Collaborations

COLLABORATION | The BUILD Health Challenge | 51-minute read 

We know how important data is in collective efforts to improve community health, but we may not agree on how to use it. This report examines the five most common data challenges from the BUILD Health Challenge cohort: 1) HIPAA concerns, 2) logistics of sharing data across different data systems, 3) language differences between partners, 4) lack of experience with data, and 5) finding methods or metrics to evaluate interventions. It includes examples of how others tackled these challenges, takeaways, tools and best practices.

Get our monthly must-reads and other blog posts delivered to your inbox.