Make 2015 About Shaping a Productive Culture

As 2015 gets under way, GEO is focusing on the role that organizational culture plays in just about everything we do. In partnership with many in our community, and sparked by frustration with the pace of progress in our field, we are looking carefully at what it takes to lead positive change in philanthropy. In conversations with foundation CEOs, trustees and other thought leaders, the role of culture and values inevitably surfaces as a key ingredient (and often a pain point) in efforts to improve performance and bring about productive change.

That makes complete sense. When we look carefully at those grant-makers whose practices are in line with what their grantees need most, we find that they are very intentional about the norms, values, habits and even the language they use -- as well as how their own actions shape collective behavior and assumptions.

We began this conversation with the GEO community at the GEO National Conference in Los Angeles last March. Starsky Wilson of Deaconess Foundation, Julie Rogers of the Meyer Foundation and Carol Larson of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation shared from personal experience about how values are expressed and reinforced in their organizational culture.

We have discovered many great ways that GEO members are shaping productive cultures through their actions, big and small. Here are a few that stuck with me:

  • I would describe Gregg Behr, CEO of the Grable Foundation in Pittsburgh (a former GEO board chair) as being obsessed with customer service. He and his staff strive to provide service on par with the Ritz Carlton or Nordstrom -- a commitment that I know to be ingrained in their organization culture.
  • Bill Dietel, a leader with deep roots in philanthropy (Bill led the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in the 1990s and for years served on the board of the F.B. Heron Foundation), believes there is no substitute for direct experience. In addition to hiring people with nonprofit experience, he asked that all program staff serve on a nonprofit board and actively be engaged in fundraising.
  • Jim Canales, one of GEO's founders and the CEO of the Barr Foundation, talks about how important it is to mind the small things -- like making sure program officers keep their phones tucked away when they are meeting with grantees or others in the community as a sign of respect.

In conversations with members, and in our work internally, I have been reminded again and again that maintaining a strong and productive culture demands that we tend to it every day in everything we do. This year, the GEO staff spent time reflecting on our own culture and went through a process to reconfirm a core set of values:

  • If You Want to Go Far, Go Together: We work collaboratively and cultivate an open and welcoming atmosphere, because genuine engagement leads to better, more informed decisions.
  • Quality = Thoughtfulness + Engagement: We deliver relevant, high-quality work to our community by developing programs that include calculated improvements and engaging our community to help shape our content.
  • Our Commitment to the Nonprofit Sector Fuels Our Work: The nonprofit sector holds great potential to contribute to solving some of society's most pressing challenges. We seek to elevate nonprofit voices at our conferences and through task forces and listening sessions.

We also structured an aspirational value for ourselves and our community:

  • Moving Beyond Our Comfort Zone: Taking risks and making bigger bets requires a balance of strength (to continue what works), flexibility (to embrace new approaches) and insight (to learn so that we can continuously improve). Breakthroughs will also likely require that we relinquish control in certain areas.

We will work to make sure our actions and culture reliably support those values and proactively seek feedback from staff, members and key partners to ensure our actions are aligned with our intent.

The start of a new year is always a moment for reflection. As you look to the year ahead, this is a great time to think about your organization's culture. By looking for ways to both codify and improve it, you can better support the people and communities you care about most.

We're so grateful for all the conversations with our community that helped shape our thinking. GEO is anxious to continue this conversation in 2015 and beyond. I would love to hear if you have an experience to share or an interest to get more engaged in this work -- leave a comment or share your thoughts with me on Twitter at @EnrightGEO.