Growing Pains:  Managing Organizational Change

Despite the economic downturn that began in 2008, many nonprofits across the country continue to expand programs, secure additional funding and hire for new positions. Indeed, during these difficult times, most socially-focused organizations note that the need for their services has never been greater and that they have a responsibility to do whatever it takes to meet those demands.

As organizations expand, however, they must also adapt carefully in order to remain stable and sustainable ventures. Throughout a period of significant growth, every aspect of an organization is tested and strained, but perhaps none more so than its organizational culture.

Being Intentional with an Evolving Culture

Culture is particularly sensitive to growth-related changes because it represents a delicate social balance that is impacted by many different factors. As new employees are added to the team, along with new processes, structures, expectations and demands, this balance is forced to shift and evolve. Maintaining the status quo is not an option with continuing growth, but it is up to the members of the team to decide whether that change is intentionally driven in a specific direction or whether it happens in an uncontrolled manner.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson for organizations experiencing growth is to be deliberate about cultural evolution. Nonprofits place a high value on their unique organizational cultures, but most groups passively allow it to remain outside of anyone’s control or influence. This does not have to be the case, and in fact, the most successful organizations go to great lengths to define their culture and control it throughout periods of growth. Managers at these organizations have learned that it is much easier to proactively build a positive culture than to fix a team than has already been allowed to change in negative ways.

The first step in managing an evolving culture is to identify the current and recent cultural elements that have had the greatest positive impact on the organization. Over the past few years, what things brought the staff together and made them more effective? What drove team performance and increased dedication to the mission? What made growth possible in the first place and what internal elements might slow it down or speed it up? And most importantly, which cultural elements should be maintained because they mirror the core nature of the organization, and which ones should be phased out because they are distracting or diminishing capacity? The answers to these questions will be different for each organization, but the keys to success in this process come from deliberately embracing the insights such discussions will make available.

Effectively managing organizational culture begins with a senior management team that embraces the:

• Importance of having a well-defined culture

• Ways in which growth will impact that culture

• Shared vision around the elements of an ideal culture

• Willingness to be hands-on in shaping the culture

• Belief that culture is driven primarily from the bottom-up, necessitating an internal grassroots approach


Once the management team is fully bought-in to this basic framework, it is time to engage the staff in the discussion. As many employees as possible, and ideally the entire staff, should be involved in the process of defining and promoting organizational culture. Staff meetings, town halls, working groups, culture committees, suggestion boxes, surveys and retreats can all be effective vehicles for engaging a grassroots approach to that process.

Ultimately, the management team and staff should collaborate to define and ensure intentional consistency around various cultural elements such as:

• How to identify and reward high-performance

• How to recognize and improve under-performance

• What management styles and behaviors are valued

• How feedback is solicited and receive

• How decisions are made

• How challenges are approached

• What “diversity” truly means, why it is important and how it is being actively promoted

• How respect is demonstrated between team members

• What makes your organization different from others

• What makes this a special place in which to work

• What accomplishments, anniversaries, birthdays and milestones will be celebrated

• How to conduct those celebrations, who leads them, when they occur and what the budget might be

• What dress code would best promote the culture

• Which elements of the physical office space should be kept and which should be improved


Hiring for Cultural Fit

Adding new people to a team has a dramatic impact on organizational culture. As new hires come on board with innovative ideas, original perspectives, fresh energy and totally different sets of expectations, the balance of the team shifts immediately. As such, hiring presents one of the greatest opportunities to be intentional with culture because managers can carefully select the ingredients that are being added to the mix and work to project how those additions will impact the result.

BELL is a national afterschool and summer tutoring program for low-income urban children that recently grew from 30 to 200 full-time employees in just a few short years. Chief Executive Officer Tiffany Cooper said recently in an interview with Commongood Careers that, “It is definitely a challenge to maintain culture as an organization grows, but we try to manage our growth by ensuring cultural fit in all of our hires. We make culture fit a key part of interviewing.”

BELL recognizes cultural factors such as preferred leadership styles, interpersonal dynamics, and organizational traditions, and incorporates this information into the hiring process. Of course, all of these factors can be affected by growth, so it is important to periodically re-examine cultural elements, identify those that are truly essential to the organization, and hire candidates who embrace and embody those core factors and are also aligned with the new realities of growth.
“Solid hiring is critical to an organization’s growth and is hugely important in managing culture change,” said Cooper. “Hiring people motivated by our culture and our mission is essential to our organizational growth. We are very slow to hire and we will turn down many great candidates in order to make sure we get those that are both great and compatible with our organizational culture.”

Additionally, BELL focuses on supporting new hires through the on-boarding process by being explicit about various cultural elements and making sure that those who are familiar with the culture are involved. “Once we’ve made the hire we ensure that the people with the most history here are involved in the on-boarding process,” Cooper said.

The Risk – and Opportunity – of Subcultures

Adding new employees can also lead to challenges. The subcultures that develop with grows can stem from many different factors. Geographically-based subcultures between regional offices result from differences in environment, standards in dress, styles of language, nature of regional management and the local community being served. Subcultures also develop within functional areas and highlight the transition from relying on employees to be “jacks-of-all-trades” toward creating more specialized functional responsibilities. As diversity in experience and background grows, subcultures often evolve based on these factors as well. It is important to recognize and value these subcultures while also maintaining a unified vision and identity for the organization as a whole.


It is also important that everyone on staff remains committed to and connected with the organization’s mission and feels like a valued part of a singular large team. Reminding employees that they are all working to solve common problems and to reach common goals, despite location or function, can build unity and an important shared identity. When the overall organizational culture is one of healthy, positive respect, subcultures that become part of the unique diversity of the team do not present a threat to the intentional management of organization-wide culture.

Communication is Key

Perhaps the most important factor in building and maintaining organizational culture is communication. “Communication is essential to managing cultural growth. We have various systems to do so including cross-functional meetings, a monthly internal newsletter and a quarterly external newsletter,” Cooper said. BELL also uses a unique quarterly “town meeting” to share organizational developments and encourage employees at all levels to contribute feedback on the strategic direction of the organization.

Employees need to feel included in organizational developments and decisions, even if they can’t be involved directly. Sharing information through various formats sends a message that employees are respected and valued, no matter how large the organization or its rate of growth.


This article was written by Commongood Careers and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

For more information about nonprofit and socially entrepreneurial careers, visit Commongood Careers at http://www.commongoodcareers.org