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Can organisational culture make your communications clearer?

10 March 2011

Having a clear strategy that fits your organisational culture will improve your communications, says Mandy Varley from consultancy Convio 

Let’s be honest. Times are scary for the charity sector. More is being asked of charities than ever before while funding sources are either stagnant or shrinking. What can you do to ensure your organisation thrives? One answer I found in recent research was refreshingly simple and almost so obvious that it is easily overlooked: align your strategy with your culture.

Culture is essentially the shared values and beliefs that help people understand how their organisation works and how they should act. Organisational culture can be a powerful asset in that it can reduce conflicts, improve message coordination, reduce uncertainty, motivate employees and offer a competitive advantage.

And what about strategy? I recognise this can be seen as jargon thrown around in the type of meeting about things that should be done that never actually get done. In a nutshell, strategy is a plan for the future. For a charity, a strategy is a plan that requires a substantial amount of coordinated action and information sharing.

Organisation wide goals

Business strategy is something the private sector has perfected over the past 20 years but is still slow to emerge in the not-for-profit sector. In this instance, forward financial planning and outlining where a charity would like to be in one, five or ten years could help frame what the organisation needs to do today and what resources they need to gather to achieve their aims. Not outlining clear organisation-wide goals can lead to:

  • An inability to create measurements and performance criteria
  • Employees who are not able to measure a link between their performance and organisation’s success
  • A large degree of employee role ambiguity and role conflict
  • Inefficiency in the organisation as a whole (especially when compared with for-profit organisations)

So how do strategy and culture fit together? Henry Ford once commented that "culture eats strategy for breakfast” but I think that not only does culture influence strategy, the reverse is true as well.

Good cultures are seen as a way to bring together all of the good aspects of an organisation to enhance its performance. What ultimately makes a "good culture" is whether or not it reinforces the strategy, mission and objectives of the organisation. Culture can be either an asset or a liability depending on what it encourages its members to do.

Defining a clear strategy that fits organisational culture is a powerful tool in today’s economic climate. Many charities are still focused on short-term financial survival at the expense of planning for long-term financial stability. With increased competition for the same sources of funding, the necessity to define your organisation in relation to other charities and to communicate what makes you distinctive grows.

This position should fit with the shared values and beliefs of your organisation because the alignment of strategy and culture builds internal cohesion. Provided the culture leads employees in a sound strategic direction, is pervasive within the organisation and strong enough to influence individual actions to conform to overall objectives, it can be a strong asset in building collective action toward a shared goal.

Unstated strategy 

After defining an end point, the next step is to take a realistic look of where you are and build a plan to get to your goals. With goals and the path decided, you need to communicate this as much internally as externally. Branding, messaging and all communications should reflect strategic objectives. In this way culture acts as a type of infrastructure that makes it clear what the organisation values, and gives employees the ability to make strategic decisions about what they do on a daily basis.

Eventually the strategy almost becomes indistinguishable from culture in that it becomes an unstated understanding of where the organisation is going and what it wants to achieve. When that is imbedded in the organisation communication, branding and messaging become more clear and consistent without additional effort.

Mandy Varley

marketing and communications manager, Convio