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Responsible for Culture: How boards define how an organization looks, works and feels

It’s easy to understand many of the responsibilities of a board once you know what they are. Budgets, hiring approval, membership confirmations, and executive salary are all concrete decisions to make with very definitive results. The complication comes with the fact that board responsibilities do not stop there. Leadership development, strategic planning, and organizational culture may all also be direct charges of the board or its committees. It’s often difficult to see what sorts of decisions or activities the board could be involved in that may address these abstract goals. Lucky for you… you’ve got On Board!

Organizational culture is one of those amorphous phrases we throw around, but rarely define until we have a problem. In some ways that’s what organizational culture is – when it’s working well you don’t notice it. Communication is effective and comfortable, problems can be recognized and addressed, and management is accessible and invested in staff development. But how do you get there? Below are just a few of the ways that boards or their committees address organizational culture.

Facilities: Where do we work? Is it conducive to the work we do? Are we near the populations we want to serve? Is it comfortable for staff and visitors? If not… let’s go shopping. Raise money. Renovate. Relocate.

Infrastructure: Do staff have the tools they need to do work effectively? Do we need to invest in new technology? Do we have policies and practices defined and in place to address issues in a manageable and consistent way?

Human Capital: Do we have the right people on the board/on staff? What gaps in skills or knowledge do we have? How could we fill those gaps? How do we support those in the organization so they are challenged and fulfilled? How do we show that we value employees?

Finances: Where does our money go, and what does that say about our priorities? Are we responsible with our money? How does its allotment line up with our mission, vision, and values?

While each of these questions may not have the ability to, on its own, dictate the culture of an organization, the combined impact of these decisions does a great deal in determining not only how staff or volunteers feel at work each day, but also how clients or partners feel about their interactions with the organization. Abstract questions (“what type of place do we want to be?”) paired with concrete detailed decisions (“are we dipping into the reserves this year?”) from the board are often the foundation on which an organization’s culture is established.


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