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GEO Guest Post: Counter-Culture — Focusing Internally to Make More Impact Externally

By Nell Edgington



phil buchananNote: As I mentioned last week, I am at the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference this week curating a group of bloggers. First up is Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). His guest post is below. In full disclosure, some of the foundations he mentions below are clients or funders of CEP. Don’t forget you can also follow the conference from afar on Twitter #GEO2016 and #2016GEO

Culture was front and center on the first day of the 2016 GEO National Conference – the featured topic at the opening plenary. A conference for some 800 staff of grantmakers interested in maximizing their external impact started by looking inward, at what happens within the walls of staffed foundations.

As Kathleen Enright, GEO’s president & CEO, put it, “culture and effectiveness are inextricably linked” suggesting that companies have recognized this. She cited as an example her positive experience as a customer with the online shoe retailer Zappos, which has been held up as an exemplar in terms of its corporate culture and customer service. [Note: Zappos was acquired by Amazon in 2009 but has sought to maintain a distinct culture.]

Enright moderated the panel discussion, which included Jim Canales of the Barr Foundation, Carrie Pickett-Erway of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, and Sylvia Yee of the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund.

“Culture is all around us, it permeates everything we do, and yet we often don’t realize it,” said Canales.

It also emanates outward. Yee discussed program officers as the nexus where culture and values are “translated” from the inside to the outside. And her point is certainly supported by the data. The organization I lead, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), has surveyed staff at nearly 50 foundations over the past decade. We know from our analyses that what happens within a foundation’s walls doesn’t stay inside those walls – that staff perceptions and grantee perceptions of foundations are correlated on some key dimensions.

This data and the arguments of the panelists about the importance of culture also resonate with recent writing on the topic. Tom David and Enright’s essay, The Source Codes of Foundation Culture, argues that foundation culture is crucial but often under-appreciated. In a similar vein, Amy Celep, Sara Brenner, and Rachel Mosher-Williams of Community Wealth Partners suggest in a recent issue of Foundation Review that, “Foundations have a tremendous untapped opportunity to more intentionally build culture.”

But culture and results don’t always correlate perfectly, as Fay Twersky of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (and a member of the CEP Board) suggested during the Q&A in a friendly challenge to Enright on her Zappos example. Citing other companies without naming names, she observed – to knowing laughter from the crowd – that “sometimes unhealthy cultures seem to be associated with very fat profits.”

Enright allowed that this was certainly true, as it surely is. And, of course, Twersky wasn’t arguing that culture doesn’t matter. Indeed, in her excellent piece, Foundation Chief Executives as Artful Jugglers, she suggests that building a healthy culture is one of the essential responsibilities of effective foundation CEOs.

But the point is that culture alone is not the answer.

Related, and not mentioned during the session, is that, in the business world, there seems to be a bit of a backlash of late against the emphasis on corporate culture. This is manifested in rants against “forced fun” and other “culture-building” that, at their worst, can look like self-absorbed navel-gazing that is divorced from the imperatives of the work.

This skepticism is perhaps most prominently expressed on the April Harvard Business Review cover, which blares “You Can’t Fix Culture: Focus on Your Business and the Rest Will Follow.”

“When organizations get into big trouble, fixing the culture is usually the prescription,” write Harvard Business School Professor Jay Lorsch and his research assistant. “But the corporate leaders we have interviewed – current and former CEOs who have successfully led major transformations – say that culture isn’t something you ‘fix.’ Rather, in their experience, cultural change is what you get after you’ve put new processes or structures in place to tackle tough business challenges.”

Let’s set aside (if we can) the fact that, unbelievably, this conclusion appears to be drawn from a very (very) limited sample of four interviews with men (yes, all men) who run major corporations. Still, I think there is a healthy caution here: that the focus on culture should not be an end in itself. It’s about the work.

And, in fairness, Enright and the panelists certainly were making that argument, too. They discussed the relationship between culture, being transparent, continual learning and improvement, and getting and receiving feedback. Repeatedly, the discussion about culture became something much, much broader – a discussion about effectiveness.

“The closer we get to the community, to the people whose lives we are trying to improve, the more humble we will be,” said Pickett-Erway. “The more feedback that you can get the better.”

Yee, too, emphasized the link between “culture and organizational effectiveness.” She noted, for example, the importance to effectiveness of “hiring a diverse staff. We need people who can stand in somebody else’s shoes, who have experienced difference themselves.”

And Canales talked about moving from “transparency 1.0” to transparency that is about two-way exchanges.

We need, as the panelists did, to keep the focus on culture as a necessary element of effectiveness rather than promoting too much of an inward gaze among institutions that, in all honesty, are already often seen as isolated and insular. What I don’t want, and what I guess fear a little, is that some foundations will misread the encouragement to focus on culture as an invitation to spend endless hours on office space re-designs, staff personality tests, or trust-building exercises. These things all have their place (or at least the first two do) but in limited doses.

The culture conversation should be integrated with, not separate from, the conversation about goals, strategies, implementation, and performance indicators. My experience (for what it’s worth) suggests that what bonds a staff together best is a sense of shared purpose and alignment toward – and progress against – shared goals.

Put another way, culture is a crucial part of the effectiveness puzzle, but it isn’t a magic bullet.

Nothing is.

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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2 Comments to GEO Guest Post: Counter-Culture — Focusing Internally to Make More Impact Externally

Tom David
May 9, 2016

I agree with Phil’s cogent summary and analysis, but I don’t think anyone he’s referring to in his blog post has suggested culture is a magic bullet. I think the common theme is paying bit more attention to culture in order to enhance foundation effectiveness … why bother with culture otherwise? So much philanthropic dialogue revolves around strategy, but we don’t often ask if our organizational culture and procedures actually align with our strategic intentions. Likewise, we may talk a good talk about diversity and transparency, but if the typical organizational culture of foundations essentially subverts those goals in myriad ways we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail to deliver.

Phil Buchanan
May 9, 2016

Thanks for your comment, Tom. I hope it was clear in my post that I was worrying about what can happen — not necessarily what the panelists said! I wrote: “The focus on culture should not be an end in itself. It’s about the work. And, in fairness, Enright and the panelists certainly were making that argument, too.”)

I also hope it was clear that the articles I referenced, including yours, are in my view very helpful contributions in highlighting the importance of culture.

Just based on my experience over the past 15 years, however, I do worry about the tendency of folks to focus on a single thing as “the answer” — even when many of those writing or speaking about it don’t intend it that way and aren’t saying that. (This happens, I think. Impact investing comes to mind.)

And I worry about the potential for a focus on culture to be mis-applied in a way that feeds a certain insularity. As I noted, in the business literature I think there is an increasing backlash against what is seen by some as an over-emphasis on culture. That’s an interesting development and perspective, I think, especially since the session led off with an example from the business world.

That is why I suggested that “We need, as the panelists did, to keep the focus on culture as a necessary element of effectiveness rather than promoting too much of an inward gaze among institutions that, in all honesty, are already often seen as isolated and insular.”

Thanks for weighing in.

Phil

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