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Building a Culture That Enables Rapid Growth

How can defining your nonprofit culture set your organization up for rapid growth?

"Culture" can be defined as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. A strong culture won't materialize or be maintained on its own. Leaders must invest the time defining and gaining input around these expectations in order to effectively operate and grow.

When I served as the head of development operations at the veteran-led disaster response organization Team Rubicon, our culture fostered innovation and required thinking at scale. This enabled us to help hundreds of communities affected by disaster through explosive growth. In just seven years, we increased annual revenue from $250,000 to $40 million and grew the number of registered volunteers from a few hundred to more than 100,000.

Everyone at your organization is a cultural steward, which requires a clear understanding of your core values and how they enhance your mission. While intangible, your culture plays a significant role in attracting and retaining staff and supporters and transforms your organization of individuals into a team. In this post, we'll share a detailed outline of our cultural principles at CauseMic, an agency dedicated to helping nonprofit leaders double their revenue. These principles were developed with our nonprofit partners in mind, knowing they're asked to do more with less and are considering what people, process, and technology are required to scale their impact.

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Begin by Defining Your Impossible End State

In order to prepare for rapid growth, begin by defining your organization's impossible end state. For Team Rubicon, we set out to "become the best disaster response organization in the world." What sounds like a lofty, broad goal allowed the organization to think bigger, keep reaching, and define the steps required for scale, which focused on these three areas: people, process, and technology.

Your culture becomes your organization's road map. Once defined, share this principle playbook early and often. Show your nonprofit's ethos in action, so no one has to make assumptions about the intent of those actions.

Cultural Principle #1 — Sleeves Up

Roll your sleeves up or rip 'em off. In this principle, we emphasize that no one is too good or overqualified to tackle the dirty work. When your organization is working toward rapid growth, you will be asked to try new things and complete seemingly menial tasks, and all will be required in order to have the greatest impact. It's mandatory to share that big, impossible vision as your North Star, but it won't be attainable until the builders and doers (that means everybody!) agree to dig in.

As you consider this principle in action, ensure that your team has clearly defined goals and responsibilities and survey the existing systems and their limitations on growth. Prioritize the high-impact, low-cost initiatives to maximize your return on investment.

Rolling your sleeves up does not mean pursuing every single opportunity that presents itself. Saying "no" or "not right now" is equally as important as saying "yes." Leaders must set the tone to ensure that their teams are focused on the initiatives, tactics, and data that matter.

Cultural Principle #2 — Success Is Not Final

Winston Churchill said, "Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It's the courage to continue that counts."

In other words, your success and your failures are never your end state. In the nonprofit sector, this means thinking beyond incremental growth and reaching for that impossible end state. Let's say your team rolled up their sleeves and increased year-end revenue by 50 percent over last year's campaign. This is a win that's definitely worth celebrating, but there are lessons to document.

Make time for retrospective discussions to outline the wins and areas for improvement, and don't let them live in that document never to be opened again. Revisit and build upon them for each campaign or initiative, and discuss how you grow and optimize. Too often, we see leaders become complacent after achievements until something alters their path, such as a global pandemic.

Colorful list of CauseMic's cultural principles: Sleeves up; success is not final; the future belongs to the curious; show, don't tell; make time fly

Cultural Principle #3 — The Future Belongs to the Curious

I involuntarily twitch at the phrase, "because that's how we've always done it." Digital marketing is rapidly evolving, which means there's access to technology and tactics that allow organizations to reach users on their preferred platforms with the right message at the right time. These tools are available for those who are curious enough to explore different solutions to complex problems, but it requires some diligent discovery to understand how they can enhance your organization's impact.

When I think about nonprofits leveraging text messaging, for example, it's not considered an emerging technology, but it often feels that way since very few organizations are leveraging this channel in a meaningful way. We communicate via text message with our friends, families, and many businesses every day, and there's a sizable opportunity for nonprofits to form deeper connections with their supporters through SMS/MMS.

Invest in your team's learning and development outside the organization. It's easy to fall into routine and tell yourself or your teammates that you don't have time to attend that conference or have coffee with that mentor. But you should make time for the organic sparks that come with removing yourself from the daily to-do lists and carve out the time to think bigger.

Cultural Principle #4 — Show, Don't Tell

Showing may not always be the most efficient method, but it's always the most effective. I'm an extrovert: I enjoy speaking and engaging with nonprofit leaders across the country, and there's a lot of value in a strong communication style. However, it's critical to move to action and let your work truly showcase the value you bring to the space. At CauseMic, that often involves implementing technology solutions that enable organizations to scale and fundraising strategies that substantially increase revenue. When sharing that story of impact, it's important to emphasize the outcomes rather than just the inputs.

Furthermore, when showing versus telling, some leaders wait too long to take action. They require all the context, consensus from stakeholders, and 100 percent certainty to act on an idea or new course of action. The stars will never align perfectly. I encourage you to rest upon the notion that having 60 percent of the information you need is enough to make a go/no-go decision. You should absolutely calculate the risks involved, but don't fall into an analysis paralysis trap. Before you press go, determine how you will measure success and be prepared to modify your strategy and tactics along the way.

Cultural Principle #5 — Make Time Fly

As the saying goes, time flies when you're having fun, and nonprofit work is just as rewarding as it is exhausting. No matter your mission, it's important that you enjoy and respect the people you spend about a third of your life with. You don't need a never-ending supply of snacks or a ping-pong table to bring joy to the workplace. A clearly defined, supportive culture will go much further.

Ensure that your staff and volunteers are intimately connected to your mission, but also recognize what you and your teammates require to avoid burnout. If you aren't taking time off to unplug or demonstrating that it's OK to log off at dinnertime, you may be contributing to an unhealthy culture that asks too much of its staff.

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