Everybody's Leaving Your Nonprofit - Could Your Culture Be the Culprit?

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” thus saith the management dreamlover, Peter Drucker.

For someone who wrote the book on Strategic Planning That Actually Works (#shamelessplug), it says a lot that I completely agree.

Strategy is great, but what good does it do for an organization to be epic on strategy while running off the fumes of a negative culture? What good does it do for a nonprofit to get all the grants ever in the world while they can barely limp through the day because everybody in the building wants desperately to leave? How can we be of service to anybody when we treat our own staff like crap?

I ask you.

There are a lot of articles making the rounds about how to spot a bad culture, and this will be added to that glorious cannon. But, because I’m an optimist and a self-proclaimed sailor-tongued change agent, I also want to provide you with just a little bit of an idea as to how one might rectify such a culture, so you can go about your business of changing the world. After all, if your organization can’t first “be the change you want to see in the world,” (thus saith the nonviolent mastermind of the earth, freakin’ Mahatma Ghandi), you won’t change anything else.

How to Spot Bad Organizational Culture in Your Nonprofit

Here are some red flags to consider to see whether your culture might be a bit sour:

  • Your turnover rate puts the most prolific pastry baker to shame. That is, people jump ship regularly. If your turnover rate is over 15% annually, it’s probably too high. Don’t ignore it: find out why this is happening. For more on that, check out my “Straight Talk About Nonprofit Turnover.” You need to hear it, trust me.

  • There is a distinct need for staff to practice CYA (cover your ass, pardon my French - also, I warned you I was a sailor-tongued change agent, and hence, here we are). Staff may be more concerned with making sure they don’t get canned (so to speak), or otherwise in trouble than they are with doing good work.

  • Blame is rampant. Meanwhile, accountability is nowhere to be found. It’s easy to point fingers - until the finger points at you, and you reluctantly realize maybe this was your thing…oops. Is it safe to take accountability for something? Is accountability a word that makes you quiver and hide?

  • Communication is guarded at best, nonexistent at worst. Staff have to stifle maniacal laughter and/or tears of rage when management mentions words like “transparent.”

  • People call in sick. Like, a lot. And they don’t live in houses built on old landfills or anything, so you wonder…Absenteeism is a massive clue that something may be amiss with your culture.

  • People cry a lot at work. This isn’t a joke. It’s something that does happen, and happened CONSTANTLY where I used to work (myself included). Let’s be real here - we expect people to compartmentalize and buck up at work. Well...that’s not real, and we’re fooling ourselves if we think it is. If it isn’t crying, it’s getting angry. It’s shutting down. It’s somehow funneling overwhelming emotion somewhere, anywhere, in hopes of getting through the day.

  • Every time someone leaves – voluntarily or no (see: Turnover), the remaining staff get super paranoid and freaked out and speculate endlessly as to why the “newly available to the marketplace” person left. These conversations tend to be secret, and/or quashed by management at every turn.

  • The board is disengaged or appears to be controlled by the CEO or Executive Director.

  • The CEO or Executive Director appears disengaged or too engaged. When leaders over-identify with their jobs, they can get...weird...about it.

  • The organization has expanded beyond the leadership’s ability to manage it, so they inadvertently sabotage growth and progress. Changing their minds every time they give a directive, but not acknowledging the flip-flop? Withholding critical resources you need to do the job? Setting key people up to fail by not training, or not allocating support, or otherwise setting unrealistic expectations? Starting a project too big to chew, and choking on it halfway through? Define processes only to have them flouted immediately?

  • People spend more time complaining about the work environment than actually doing work. Meanwhile, management is like, “guys! Work harder! What gives?”

  • Lip service may be paid to “self-care,” but management doesn’t model or encourage it, and may instead model workaholic behavior. Others are expected to follow suit or “do as I say not as I do.” For instance, when the boss sends emails to employees late into the night, or while on vacation, employees feel compelled to work constantly and always be available and “on,” even while management may insist they want people not to do that.

  • Departments and individuals carefully guard their “territory” and resist calls for collaboration or sharing responsibility and working toward common results.

  • Try as you may, you can’t get staff to align on priorities or results…or nobody knows what they are, or what their role in achieving them is, and don’t know who to ask.

  • Bottlenecks abound. One person, or a few people, have input on every decision that ever has to be made, creating backlogs, slowing progress, and irritating everyone.

  • There is little or no autonomy. People have to get approval for everything, or they are observed and managed so tightly and severely, they feel like they’re in The Gulag.

  • People gossip constantly. They put other people down. Complaints about other peoples’ performance fill the halls, but never seem to reach a level of actually doing anything about it. The tone of conversation is conspiratorial and generally negative.

  • There is no staff development or effort to create opportunities for staff to advance through the ranks and into leadership.

  • A “hero culture” is exalted – wherein busyness and overwork are the norm, whether it gets any actual results or not.

  • Your organization is rife with mission mirroring, a phenomenon wherein a nonprofit reflects the condition it aims to solve in the community within the organization itself. An organization that fights poverty may underpay, overwork, and otherwise oppress its staff. An organization that fights domestic violence may abuse or otherwise harm employees. An organization that seeks freedom of expression may tightly manage internal and external communications.

Whew! That’s not even an exhaustive list. It’s just scratching the surface of a very deeply unfortunate way of doing business.

Here’s the truth: Nonprofits with bad culture are more common than we might think.

It may not be the norm (I truly hope not), but because it is so common, it bears addressing. When we get a bunch of well-meaning people together in one place, we can use their passion and power for good, or we can exploit it. More often than not, our nonprofit scarcity mentality (Never enough money! Always too much work! Oh, the humanity!) influences our (in)ability to create a positive culture.

Why? Because: culture is the result of intentional or unintentional conditions. We always have culture, whether we choose it or not. The key is, we have complete ability to define and uphold an organizational culture that is healthy and mission-focused. The problem with our thinking in the nonprofit world is that we honestly believe we don’t have the time or money to invest in culture. We think it’s a waste of time and resources. I know this is true because the evidence is more than ample to prove it. We don’t have leadership pipelines. We don’t care that our turnover rate is, on average, 19% - and in some industries and cases much, much higher. We don’t bother to hire from within. We don’t pay people what they deserve to get paid.

And we usually don’t stop long enough to ponder - “is this OK?” (it’s not).

Once You Realize It Isn’t OK to Foster a Crappy Culture…

Now that you know what you’re looking at, and have, hopefully, unlocked the reason(s) behind your misery and/or the misery of others, you can do something about it.

Because this is distressing, and because it works, I’m going to start off with a little tiny primer on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Your thinking influences your emotions, and your emotions influence your behavior. Your behavior gets you results - positive or negative.

Now, this works to do all kinds of good things in life in general. You can learn to change the way you think so you can change the way you feel, and when you change the way you feel, you can choose better behaviors, which will lead to better outcomes.

When it comes to culture, you can use these ideas. The trick is? Do it backwards.

- with a nod to the fabulous book, “Change the Culture, Change the Game”  by Roger Connors and Tom Smith.

  • Define your desired results. What do you want to achieve? What is your greatest mission-based result? Name it, prioritize it, plaster it everywhere. Tattoo it on your face. Make it known. What do you actually want to accomplish? This is not your entire mission. This is just what you’d like to accomplish in the next quarter or year. It’s a way to focus everybody on the same result.

  • Understand what kind of behaviors and actions will accomplish the result you want. Tell everybody. Help them see what you want them to do. Then, and this is key, you need to do it too. Culture change happens when the managers and leaders of an organization decide to make a change. They have to be on board with behaving differently so that others will take it seriously and believe it is going to be different. If you want to be a leader, you have to - HAVE TO - commit to being a better person, constantly, every day.

  • Identify the beliefs and ways of thinking that support the actions and behaviors you want people to take. At the same time, identify the ways of thinking and beliefs - warranted or no - that people currently hold in your organization. What can stay? What must change?

  • Create an environment that supports the ability of everyone to adapt and change their beliefs by providing a new experience for staff. The experience includes you making amends when needed (seriously, print out a 12-step program if you need to - this is a healing effort and it won’t be easy - you will have to admit that as a leader - or as a participant in the culture at any level - you have made mistakes and done some things wrong). The experience includes new ways of communicating - be clearer, more transparent, more direct. It includes clarity in direction. It includes addressing issues of performance early and clearly. It includes celebrating and rewarding the things you want to see more of, instead of tacitly rewarding things that are damaging and undermining to the kind of culture you want to intentionally create.

Can a bad culture be turned around to good? Sure. With a lot of effort and intentional work. Without a decent culture, though, your efforts will not be as fruitful as they otherwise could be. This is bad enough in a private sector organization. It is unacceptable in nonprofits, which exist purely and completely to provide positive returns to the community. If you waste your donor money, and your precious time languishing in a bad culture, you are doing a disservice to the world, and to your mission.


Don’t think you have the time or money to invest in culture change? Wrong. You can’t afford NOT to do it. As infomercial-esque as that sounds, it is absolutely true. Strategy is the delicious breakfast of culture. It can be a healthy and nourishing meal, or it can be the carnage of failure. It’s up to you to decide which.