Those of us in the social sector are painfully aware that toxic individuals and cultures are not just a function of the private sector—unfortunately, our sector has had its own share of recent scandals. Which raises the question: What if all social impact organizations held their leaders and staff accountable not only for what they accomplish, but also for how they accomplish it?

In recent years, the social sector has largely focused on what it is achieving, emphasizing theories of change, performance metrics, and impact—or the end result. But it’s also important to look at how we do the work, focusing on our cultures, internal behaviors, and the means to the ends. At the center of organizational culture must be a fundamental commitment to value and respect all people, inside and outside our organizations.

So how can we counteract workplace toxicity and develop stronger performance in the process? Based on decades of experience leading and advising social impact organizations, I believe there are four questions leaders should ask:

1. Are your organization’s values and cultural norms explicitly stated? Whether or not they are written down, every organization has implicit values and a culture defined by its leaders. If you have not yet created an explicit values statement, it’s time to do so—and it doesn’t have to be complicated. We’ve worked with a number of clients to create statements that can serve as an internal North Star and help anchor organizational culture.

Last year, the growing team at the Sobrato Family Foundation, a place-based grantmaker whose mission is to make Silicon Valley a place of opportunity for all residents, used its staff retreat to make the organization’s cultural norms and practices more explicit. The result was an internal co-created document that outlined, in very clear terms, the values and behaviors that aligned with the foundation’s mission and were expected of all employees.

Another approach is to partner with a third party to interview or survey board members and staff confidentially about the organization’s implicit culture, compile the results, and lead a conversation about insights and tensions—and what to do next to make the culture more explicit. Whatever the approach, staff should feel safe, heard, and certain that their input is taken seriously.

2. Do you have policies in place to ensure that everyone, especially top leadership, is held accountable? There are several practices that can help you assess whether your organization’s values are truly reflected in the behaviors of leaders and staff. They can also help ensure that leaders correct bad behaviors and avoid rewarding actions that run counter to those values, even if they result in high performance.

  • Board assessments: Start at the top by incorporating questions about values and culture into the board’s annual performance assessment. The National Council on Nonprofits has an online listing of helpful resources for conducting a nonprofit board assessment. A good example of this is New Door Ventures, a youth development organization whose board conducts a rigorous assessment of its own performance at its annual retreat. Members reflect on their overall performance in light of the organization’s mission, values, and goals. They also determine organizational goals for the following year, and set expectations for the board’s contribution to these goals, as well as areas for board growth and improvement.
  • Performance reviews: Using the 360-degree feedback process, employees can receive feedback from a wide range of people working around them. These diverse perspectives help employees understand not only what they have achieved, but how they got things done. Managers should use a survey tool or confidential interviews, and ask peers, direct reports, and other managers to rate the extent to which an employee “lives” the organization’s values. Common behaviors to assess include teamwork and collaboration, openness and sharing, and/or the practice of learning and correcting course when needed.
  • Bonuses: If your organization provides merit-based bonuses as part of its compensation, you should consider creating a framework for determining the bonus based both on what an employee accomplishes and how they get it done. For example, if an organization values collaboration, and an employee achieves his or her goals but doesn’t work well with others, you would take both into account in determining a bonus.

New Door Ventures’ youth development staff are trained to treat youth as assets with the capacity for success. (Photo courtesy of New Door Ventures)

An example of an organization that uses both performance reviews and bonuses to hold staff accountable is the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a national nonprofit that helps foundations benchmark their performance. CEP practices what it preaches through an annual staff climate and engagement survey, administered by a third party and benchmarked against external organizations. It also employs a 360-feedback process in which anyone on staff can provide anonymous feedback about any other staff member, starting with the CEO. Both the staff survey and all staff feedback on the CEO go, unedited, to the board of directors, which then draws on this data for his performance review and bonus consideration. Open-ended questions cover strengths and areas for improvement in the context of specific cultural traits and behaviors the organization has deemed important.

3. Does your organization have policies in place to support diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at all levels? In this day and age, the integrity and performance of our organizations is predicated on how well we walk our talk, and uphold our mission and values, in everything we do. Organizations need strong human-resource policies, including DEI policies, complemented by processes that help managers reflect on their progress in putting these into practice—including what is going well and ways to improve.

As an example, corporate giant LinkedIn has made a commitment to partner with the nonprofit Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), which works on DEI issues in business and cultivates next generation leaders of color. MLT is now helping LinkedIn innovate recruiting practices to hire more people of color, and to develop a “culture of belonging” that supports employees of all backgrounds to thrive and grow.

4. Does your revenue model take into account fair and equitable employee compensation? Nonprofits often reconcile their budgets by never facing the hard questions of employee overwork and underpay. Make the case to funders that you must base your budget on the full cost of delivering great programs, including compensation to attract and retain talented staff. Develop a written compensation approach that articulates the specifics of how you set pay, what peer organizations you benchmark against, and how you account for important variables like rising costs of living. Pay attention to the well-being of your staff, and consider benefits such as sabbaticals, wellness or self-care programs, and professional development opportunities.

At the Boys and Girls Club of the Peninsula, located in one of the poorest cities in California, youth participate in programs to increase their educational outcomes and life opportunities. The staff is first-rate and attracted not only by the organization’s impact, but also its positive culture, strong compensation, and benefits. These elements contribute to low turnover and strong morale, which the CEO cites as organizational priorities critical to achieving great outcomes for the youth the organization serves.

In conclusion, it’s more important than ever for social sector organizations to walk our own talk. Given that we aspire to create a more positive, just society, we can’t proclaim our values for others but refuse to follow them ourselves. Leaders and staff come to work in the social sector because they are motivated by our missions and want to help make the world a better place. Working in a culture that is toxic or anything short of high-functioning is simply misaligned with what motivates them, and it ultimately undermines high performance. It’s time to put formal practices in place to ensure that we are living justice and equity, not just talking about it.

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