Developing a Culture of Connection at Your Nonprofit

Oct. 22, 2015

DRG staff


How would you describe the organizational culture at your nonprofit? In his new book, Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work, Michael Lee Stallard says that many organizations aren’t reaching their full potential because their workplaces are driven by cultures of indifference and control.

He describes a culture of indifference as a work environment where people are so busy with tasks that they don’t take the time to build meaningful relationships with each other. In a culture of control, higher-ups use their power to intimidate their subordinates. As a result, the organization’s staff is reluctant to speak up or share constructive criticism about how the organization can improve because of the potential consequences. According to Stallard, this can harm an organization since open communication keeps leaders informed about important issues affecting the organization and its staff.

“That additional flow of knowledge helps decision makers make the best decision,” he says.

Cultures of indifference and control can also have an impact on your nonprofit’s ability to recruit top talent, foster productivity, promote employee engagement and spark innovation.

Connection culture, on the other hand, is focused on building community a through shared vision, voice and value. Stallard says that when an organization’s workers are united by its mission, are valued for their individual contributions, and are able to share their opinions and ideas freely, the team forms an emotional bond that leads to loyalty, collaboration and cooperation.

“When people feel connected, they give their best efforts to the organization,” he says. “If they don’t feel connected overtime, then they don’t. They show up for the paycheck, but they don’t give their best efforts.”

Why Connections Matter

Research shows that employee engagement influences work performance. According to the “State of the American Workplace,” a 2013 Gallup survey, a whopping “70 percent of American workers are ‘not engaged’ or ‘actively disengaged’ and are emotionally disconnected from their work and less likely to be productive.”

But connections don’t just affect performance. Most recently, a study in the journal, Perspectives on Psychological Science, revealed that the lack of social connections is a health risk. In the article, “In the Age of Loneliness, Connections at Work Matter,” Tim Leberecht, a chief marketing officer and expert in workforce innovation, explains that “people crave connection and intimacy in all realms of their lives, including at work. It’s a critical source of empathy and tolerance – the glue that keeps relationships, projects, and organizations together.”

UCLA professor and social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman goes as far as likening social connections to basic necessities like food, water and shelter.

Stallard says this is because people have six universal needs that help them to feel connected to their work: respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning.

“We’re hardwired to connect so when those biological needs for connections are not met, we dysfunction,” says Stallard.

According to Stallard, connections are especially important in the human services and health sectors since people in those fields are often addressing serious illnesses or social issues that can lead to stress. He cites Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which has been ranked as one of the best hospitals for cancer care for more than 25 years, as a successful model of connection culture. He had a personal experience with the facility when his wife was diagnosed with cancer over 10 years ago.

“Connecting with people, showing them that you care, learning their names-those little things create connection and safety,” he says. “It creates homeostasis.”

Evaluating Your Organization’s Culture

In Connection Culture, Stallard states that organizations that lack a vision or shared identity tend to have an unfocused mission. They are also likely to set unrealistic goals and expectations. If your nonprofit ridicules, overworks, micromanages or fails to acknowledge the strides that your staff has made, it’s a sign that you’re not valuing your team enough.

Are you building connections with volunteers and donors? Stallard believes connection culture is important to retain supporters since their reimbursement is an emotional compensation.

“That’s the number one reason people stop being committed to an organization, whether it’s their [money] or time,” he says.

The goal is to make your team and supporters feel more comfortable participating in honest conversations about how to make the organization better, which can lead to innovation.

“If they feel connected, they align their behavior with the team, the leader and the organization’s goals so you get everyone moving in the right direction,” he says.

Recruiting for Connection Skills

While many organizations hire and promote people based on competence, connection skills should also be considered. Stallard advises organizations to pay close attention to areas in their prospective leader’s career that suggests connection, disconnection or control.

“Leaders who care about people and excellence” tend to promote connection culture, he says. “Leaders who just care about results don’t connect with people. They may for a season, but ultimately there’s disconnection that affects performance.”

Stallard says that organizations that are successful in recruiting and retaining top talent are also the kinds of organizations that are intentional about fostering a culture of connection and finding the right cultural fit.

“Organizations that are the most careful [and] the most deliberate about interviewing candidates take their time to get a number of people in the organization to interview potential candidates,” he says. “It gives them a lot of observations to get a sense of how that candidate is in terms of their ability to connect with others. The more observations you have, the more confidence you’ll have about your potential leader’s ability to connect with people.”

Nonprofits can strengthen their organizational culture by putting their employees in roles that will allow them to grow as individuals.

“You want to give them a role that’s a good fit with their interests and their aspirations,” Stallard says. He suggests using performance evaluations to assess your employees’ strengths and weaknesses. “It’s better to de-couple performance that affects pay and promotion with 360-degree assessments that are just used solely for development.”

Building meaningful connections should be a top priority in your onboarding process as well as in professional development training.

“When people come in a new organization, that’s a very stressful event for them,” says Stallard when asked about the importance of facilitating connections in onboarding a new hire.

Regular meetings and check-ins are necessary to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

The Challenges of Changing Cultures
Still, it’s not unusual to experience pushbacks, obstacles or moments of uncertainty if you’re a new or current leader trying to cultivate a culture of connection- especially if your organization has been governed by cultures of indifference or control in the past.

“Anytime you start making changes to a culture, it creates some instability,” Stallard says.

However, things will begin to improve if you communicate openly with your team about the changes your organization is undergoing.

“You’re reducing stress by connecting,” he says. “You’re aligning people. You set your priorities so people know what your priorities are [and] what your expectations of them are. The faster you do those things, the faster you get through the transition.”

For employees who aren’t in senior-level positions that would allow them to implement organizational changes, Stallard suggests forming subcultures of connection in their departments. Work on being attentive in conversations, sharing empathy and recognizing the efforts of people on your team.

“Don’t focus on what your CEO is doing,” he says. “Focus on what you can change. The departments that every employee is involved in- you can have an effect on them by being intentional about connecting with others.”