What is organizational culture – and how can it help promote anti-racist practices?

By Marita Phelps

Your organization’s culture consists of the shared beliefs, assumptions, values, and interactions that form the basis of everything you do. It is defined not by what you say you are but by how you behave. We cannot afford to overlook the importance of culture in today’s world – we are all being called upon to engage in deep reflection on our organizational culture and possibly take remedial actions to strengthen it.

How does culture manifest itself in your organization now? What culture practices can you aspire to this year to make your organization more inclusive? And how can you determine what your culture is today so you can continue to evolve tomorrow? Below, we explore these ideas in greater detail.

Three pillars of organizational culture

As a field of study, organizational culture has been around for 70 years, yet it remains in many ways an abstract concept in practice. While it can be difficult to quantify or contain, culture will always show up in three places. Pay attention to your identity, your brand, and your values.

1. Culture is your identity

No two cultures are alike, and that’s good news. Today, more than ever, culture is your greatest advantage. Your current and prospective stakeholders—the people you serve now and those you hope to one day reach—are watching your every move.  Success is achieved not by your most brilliant strategy nor leanest operation, but by your defining culture.  Today, all organizations are being called upon to think deeply about the sense of purpose that drew all of us to this work in the first place and to engage in deep reflection and action around ensuring that our organizational cultures are not perpetuating systemic racist practices.

2. Culture is your brand

Who you are perceived to be on the outside is an output of who you are on the inside.  Brand has an external orientation – it is about a stakeholder’s collective impression of all she sees, hears, and knows about your organization. Culture is created internally as the very fabric of your organization, yet it too is experienced outside the four walls of your enterprise. It does not matter what culture phrases you have printed on your walls; rather, perception (by staff, the community, and stakeholders) is reality.  We are seeing major commercial brands like Aunt Jemima wrestle with the outside “packaging” that upholds white supremacy – our organizations must also do the deep work of understanding the impact of our brands vs. our intentions.  It is important to enlist your stakeholders in this analysis – engage them (board, staff, constituents, partners, funders) in conversations with open ended questions such as:

·       What is your experience of interacting with us – what does it make you feel?

·       How would you describe our organization to someone else?

·       What are the challenges you experience in interacting with us?

What you hear may not always feel good (hopefully it does), but it is important to get an honest picture of how you come across to others for the long term survival of your organization.

3. Culture is what you value

“Organizational culture is the collection of words, actions, thoughts, and ‘stuff’ that clarifies and reinforces what is truly valued inside an organization,” according to Culture That Works by Jamie Notter. When you boil it down to its simplest form, an organization’s culture is a manifestation of what it truly values. These core values are demonstrated in every aspect of how you think, act, and relate within your organization. They are at the core of your organization’s greatness—the standards against which acceptable and non-acceptable behavior is determined.

Hint – values should never be developed by the leadership and pushed out to the rest of the organization.  When that happens, more often than not, organizations are perceived as not “walking their talk.”  They are out of sync with what they profess to value.  Values must be developed through participation of staff at all levels in order to accurately reflect the culture you practice.

To truly ensure that your values drive your organizational culture, they should also be built into the performance review process.  They should describe the set of core competencies you expect from every member of the staff.  All staff should be held accountable to uphold the values they helped to develop.

Culture goals for the progressive organization

A couple of best practices trending in the 2020 workplace are worth highlighting in this culture conversation. Sector-leading non-profits today not only establish a transformative strategy, but they put in the more difficult work to build authentic relationships and internal renewal processes. Increasingly these organizations are championing both reciprocity and diversity in culture creation.

1. Supporting reciprocity

Organizations with cultures of reciprocity uphold humanity throughout their systems. Rather than seeing people as capital with skills to be extracted, these sustainable and socially conscious agencies treat individuals as resources to be shared and developed.

Reciprocity is about valuing social, intellectual, and cultural capital for the mutual benefit of the individual and agency. This applies to employee hiring, development, and separation; board recruitment; strategy development; and internal process like budgeting and communications. What does this mean in practice?  Here are some practices being implemented to uphold this principle:

·       Eliminating higher education requirements or special training requirements from job descriptions (this practice upholds white supremacy since capital has historically been concentrated in white populations, giving them an unfair advantage in affording higher education and specialized trainings).

·       Implementing cultural competency training for managers so they don’t inadvertently promote racist messaging like we want you to “look more professional” (which means white) in staff development conversations.

·       Doing a communications audit to scour the past year of organizational communications (internal and external) for any potentially racist messaging.

2. Ensuring equity

Diverse teams make better decisions 87 percent of the time when compared to individual thinkers, and companies with higher-than-average diversity have higher innovation revenues. The smartest non-profit agencies today are renewing their focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts.

Promoting DEI increases an organization’s mission impact and bottom-line results; more importantly, it is the right thing to do. As the nation continues to wake up to the need for equity across our systems and enterprises, organizations that focus on DEI will emerge as leaders in this collective experience.

The path toward culture change

Now that you understand how culture shows up in your organization and have gained some new culture aspirations, you may be feeling ready to work on culture change. Understanding where you are today is the first step toward improving your organization’s culture. Identify your values, and then assess the state of your current culture.

1. Identify values

To determine your values, ask yourself the following questions:

·       What are our standards (that help us clarify expectations across the organization)?

·       What are our beliefs (the point of view we share)?

·       What is not okay to violate or compromise?

·       What are our core principles (that guide our behavior)?

·       If you had to capture these thoughts in five distinct “headline” categories, what five words would you use?

By making your values explicit and becoming more aware of how they define your culture, you can begin to create a shared framework within which your organization can operate.

2. Assess culture

White-led organizations simply cannot do this work through self-examination.  They need data, and thought-leadership from some of the people most affected by your culture – your staff.  They also need an objective eye who can help surface honest feedback on issues that may be difficult for management to hear.  If it turns out your organization needs DEI training, then you will need a firm that specializes in that kind of conversation and training.

Once you establish your starting place, you can move toward your desired culture.


As a living system, your organization is constantly evolving, and so too is your culture. This is critical work as we aim to be better and do better in the days to come.

Like anything important to the success of an enterprise, culture starts at the top. It is imperative for you as a leader to own and drive culture creation and, if needed, culture change. We can help you run your organization with more clarity, efficiency, and joy. Contact us today to learn more.

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