Can you change your culture?

The value of knowing your organizational culture cannot be overstated when you realize the impact it has on everyday management decisions, as well as important benchmarks such as executive transitions, restructuring, organizational alignment and mergers. By choosing to reveal your organization’s culture, the authors of our current feature, The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide, say you will be better able to orient new staff and board members, find better leadership matches, better understand and define your theory of change, develop more effective strategies, market and communicate more effectively and make successful choices about restructuring or mergers. In other words, culture awareness increases your effectiveness in almost every leadership choice you make.

The following is an excerpt from our Page to Practice feature of The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing the Hidden Truths that Impact Performance by Paige Hull Teegarden, Denice Rothman Hinden and Paul Sturm. In this excerpt, the authors explain how you can reveal hidden truths about your nonprofit by exploring its stories. These stories in return will shed important light on how your organization operates, what its norms are and how to mobilize change. We also asked about the biggest mistake nonprofits make when trying to change culture.

Learning through stories

Three kinds of stories are critical sources of information about organizational culture, according to the authors: the creation story, the survival stories and the heroic or successful staff stories. The authors report that these stories are usually filled with images, values and assumptions, and characters who acted on these values and assumptions. They found analyzing these stories to be the most powerful way to surface the “hidden truths” about organizational culture.


The “creation story” is a “thick” or richly described telling of who formed the organization and why, say the authors. The creation story includes information about what the founders hoped to accomplish, who founded it, how they founded it and information about the broader environment. The story reveals evidence of important solutions to problems and uncertainties, which becomes the core belief system and assumptions surrounding the organization.

Survival stories are also thick narratives that focus on life-threatening challenges that the organization has successfully conquered. These are not stories about securing a grant. When you hear a survival story, you should be able to identify the seriousness of the threat and what the organization did to navigate the threat. Because the story is about “life and death,” the story should endure.

Hero or heroine stories have magical and mythical qualities where the central figure becomes larger than life. In this case, you are looking for stories about an uber successful staff person that inspires retelling. Sometimes these stories are

portrayed in the setting of “the way things used to be,” which conveys norms about the organization. These are often internal stories.

CausePlanet: What is the biggest mistake that organizations make when trying to change their culture?

Authors: The mistake is believing that organizational culture can be changed in a wholesale way. Culture is an organization’s DNA. It’s always present – seen or unseen, spoken or silent, explicit or implicit. An organization’s culture can certainly evolve or shift as its internal or external environment shifts. However, attempting to ‘change’ organizational culture is less likely to succeed. This is why we stress the importance of revealing and understanding organizational culture so that it becomes an ally in structuring shifts that enhance organizational effectiveness. Swimming with the current is always easier.

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