Placing Organizational Culture at the Center

By Amy Born

At Leading Edge we believe that people are the most valuable asset of our sector. But what does it mean to truly invest in our people? And what does it mean to put the employee experience at the center of how we think about our work?

In 2016, Leading Edge piloted the first employee experience survey for the Jewish nonprofit sector. This tool, which gathers feedback from employees about their experiences at work, has now been taken by over 250 organizations in our sector over the past four years. These organizations are using the feedback they garner from the survey to help manifest core Jewish values in their institutions. They recognize that in addition to keeping all of their critical programs and fundraising needs on track, they must also prioritize their employees as key stakeholders in their work. When we piloted the survey, we engaged a coalition of 55 organizations willing to learn more about their employees’ experiences. Since that first year, we have found organizations are placing increasing value on workplace culture and leadership development, which are becoming priorities for Jewish nonprofits.

This year alone, Leading Edge surveyed over 11,000 employees at 182 organizations. In participating in the survey, leaders become vulnerable, solicit honest and confidential input, and explore what they learn from their employees with curiosity and intention to create even better places to work. In short, they are valuing and empowering people and building towards the future.

In encouraging organizations to take a deep look at their cultures, our role at Leading Edge is to provide guidance and support as organizations hold up a mirror and learn about what is working and what requires more focus and attention. We do not provide the answers about what will work at a specific organization. We believe organizations themselves hold the keys to success – we simply provide the tools and partnership on the journey as they explore areas for potential growth. Taking the survey is just the first step in what we hope will be an ongoing process of exploration and improvement.

Our team is learning about many ways organizations are using data from the survey to identify areas for improvement. Here is some of what we have heard so far:

Developing staff-driven initiatives to improve culture. Culture is not a leadership issue or an HR initiative. It is an everyone issue. Everyone contributes to what it feels like at work. Many organizations unpacked the data with their entire staff, making the data their own with visuals, stories, analyses, and reports that can be shared with stakeholders. Other organizations incorporate the results into leadership team retreats, developing an action plan and urging managers to think about how they will close some of the gaps presented.

Empowering staff to own the work. We know from the survey data that many people at Jewish nonprofit organizations feel stretched thin. There is a lot of work to do and not always enough people or hours in the day to get it all done. That said, as organizations are prioritizing workplace culture, many have decided to shift priorities so someone can focus all or part of their time on opportunities identified in the survey. Some organizations have hired a person to focus specifically on an outcome from the survey, while others have incorporated this responsibility into an existing job. Two organizations recognized the need to fill gaps in human resources expertise, so they partnered with each other to hire a shared HR Manager.

Holding senior leaders accountable. Senior leaders hold the keys to making change. Workplace culture must be prioritized and modeled from the CEO down. Though having staff own the work is important, this work cannot be relegated to an HR department or one person assigned to workplace culture. It needs to be integrated into the entire organization, starting at the top. We’ve found that the best results unfold when senior leaders buy in to the process and when managers themselves understand the importance of nurturing their own staff.

Small changes can make a big difference. One organization finalized a new Onboarding Handbook, another created a more equitable cell phone policy, and another used their survey data to get board member buy-in to improve their health insurance. Several groups instituted new, transparent compensation philosophies. Organizations have revitalized cross-organizational collaboration. We’ve seen institutions change team meeting structures, enforce performance evaluations, bolster employee appreciation efforts, and hire an HR attorney to lead harassment prevention training. In all cases, organizations are using the data to inform their workplace culture priorities and show employees that they take workplace culture seriously.

Changing mindset. One organizational leader shared that participating in the survey has helped ensure that she always keeps workplace culture and leadership development front of mind when making decisions. Not surprisingly, her organization’s scores have gone up each year.

Experts know there is no magic wand that can shift the employee experience overnight. Culture change takes time. Overall, the organizations that are involved in the Leading Edge employee experience survey are integrating the survey findings into their day-to-day operations. They are making progress slowly and steadily. Similar to getting into shape, lasting success is best achieved by making incremental changes, practicing consistent new behaviors, and building new muscles along the way.

Mazel tov to the 182 organizations that are placing culture and talent at the forefront of their agendas! Leading Edge is excited to continue working with you on this journey.

Amy Born is Chief Strategy Officer at Leading Edge.