ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Friday, September 28, 2012 - 10:32am
posted by
Mary Hall
Chief Operating Officer
Take Charge America

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing series, we invite a nonprofit scholar, student, or professional to highlight current research reports or studies and discuss how they can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice.

It has often been said that organizational culture trumps strategy. An organization’s culture is composed of the values and behaviors practiced inside the organization, and it can be positive or negative. Culture is strongly influenced by relationships, as well as formal policies and informal practices. A healthy culture can inspire individuals to bond together and weather difficult challenges in pursuit of a common goal. A weak culture can leave individuals and the organization damaged and unsuccessful1.

Culture is not an “off the shelf” product, it must be cultivated. Achieving a strong culture requires intention and commitment, but the investment can pay off: a strong organizational culture can be a competitive advantage that strengthens the organization’s ability to achieve its mission and strategic goals. And, most of us find it much more pleasant to work in a positive work environment full of people who enjoy their work and their co-workers.

In 2009, The Bridgespan Group published a report titled "Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits". The study asked nonprofit CEO’s what they considered to be the most important criteria when hiring for nonprofit staff positions. Seventy-nine percent of responding nonprofit CEOs rated “functional experience” as the most important criteria, however, 75 percent of them rated “fit with the culture of our organization” as equally important.2

It appears that the organization’s culture also impacts clients. In a 2011 Baldrige study, respondents were asked which elements of workplace commitment were the most beneficial, and 80 percent of them ranked culture as the most important. In the same study, 70 percent said that customers are the most important external audience for understanding a company’s commitment to being a great workplace.3

So, is culture an intangible asset—like good will, or a blue sky? Actually, one way to measure the cost of a weak culture is through employee turnover. The cost of turning over one paid employee is estimated to be between one-half to five times their salary, depending on the position.4 Replacement costs include recruitment, advertising, interviewing and training. For example, let’s say an organization with 40 staff members experiences 25 percent turnover, at an average salary of $35,000. This turnover costs the organization a minimum of $175,000. The organization will also experience a decrease in performance quantity and quality, due to the time required for recruitment and hiring, and decreased productivity as new employees face the learning curve.5 During this time, excess work is taken on by remaining staff, and there can be resulting overtime costs, potential burnout and reduced morale. Turnover can also include loss of volunteers, and while this cost is usually calculated separately from employee turnover, the effects can be similar.

Staff members in a strong culture demonstrate alignment with organizational values, even in the absence of enforcement policies. People do things not necessarily because they’re asked, but because it’s the right thing to do. A healthy culture also fosters appreciation of diversity: a respect and regard for fair treatment of each other. Employees working in a strong culture also tend to show pride and enthusiasm for the work they do, have a better sense of purpose and direction, as well as good communication about company issues.

If you’re not quite sold on the importance of a healthy culture, consider what the late Brian O’Connell, author and co-founder of the Independent Sector, said: “If I were not sure of a person’s fit with the organization, I would rate that piece as about 50 percent negative. It would take almost an unbelievable rating on all the other items to overcome that negative on culture. That’s how strongly I feel about the cultural aspects6."

A positive culture is modeled at the top, and executive directors set the pace. Values can help to guide the creation of a positive organizational culture. I recommend that an organization establish its values and expect commitment to the values by incorporating them into hiring, decision making and performance reviews. Talk about your values and reward and recognize behaviors that demonstrate commitment to them. Maintain transparent and frequent communications. Establish a conflict resolution process and teach leadership how to manage the inevitable relationship conflicts. Hold people accountable and acknowledge and celebrate team success.

The nonprofit sector is based on acts of kindness and charity, and let’s remember that charity begins at “home” in the organizational cultures we create.

Mary Hall is a Master of Nonprofit Studies graduate from the ASU Lodestar Center, and a Certified Professional Accountant. On top of being the Chief Operating Officer at Take Charge America, Mary is also the current Vice Chair of the Better Business Bureau.


[1]  Silverthorne, S. (2011). The Profit Power of Corporate Culture, Harvard Business School, Working Knowledge.
[2] "Finding Leaders for America’s Nonprofits," The Bridgespan Group.
[4] "The Real Costs of Employee Turnover," The Rainmaker Group.
[5] “US Annual Employment Turnover Rates.” US Department of Labor, September 05-August 06
[6]  "Cultural Fit in the Nonprofit Sector: A Conversation with Brian O’Connell ," The Bridgespan Group.


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I completely agree with this article. I love how you stated "that kindness and charity begins at home". I believe that a great workplace is essential to make the nonprofit sector more successful.

I love the comment that you made about "that kindness and charity begins at home". I do believe in that and i agree that that makes a great workplace experience. Achieving a strong culture requires intention and commitment.

I thought this blog did a good job in covering how culture can affect the work place. I completely agree that assets can be found from culture in your workplace. It is very important to have to have this because it makes the work place a greater experience which benefits the employees and in turn the customer!

This is a great article and completely agree with it. A fun work atmosphere makes for a successful business. Look at Disneyland. I know it's not in the non-profit sector but look at the culture. That's what makes it so successful, the people that work there. And I also liked the "kindness and charity begins at home".

The entire post is very informative. Cultural values seem to play an important role in every aspect of life, you show that this is true in the nonprofit sector of work. I specifically enjoyed your comments about executive directors and people higher up in the organization needing to set a good example for everyone below them.

I really enjoyed your post overall. Positive cultural values seem to be important in all aspects of life. I really liked your comments about how the people high up in organizations must set a good example for everyone else involved in the organization.

Everything written in this article is something I agree with. Personally, I work in an environment where there is vast cultural diversity. For instance, you stated how people should discuss their personal values and beliefs. This is something we all do and it gives us different perspectives as to how we can better work together making us more productive at work. I couldn't imagine working in a different environment from this.

Everything written in this article is something I agree with. Personally, I work in an environment where there is vast cultural diversity. For instance, you stated how people should discuss their personal values and beliefs. This is something we all do and it gives us different perspectives as to how we can better work together making us more productive at work. I couldn't imagine working in a different environment from this.

I believe that having a strong and positive culture within an organization is very important. Helping employees feel more connected and supported within the company creates a much better working environment. If employees are driven to truly care about each other and what they are doing their productivity can reach its full potential.

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