What Makes a Great Organization?

What makes a nonprofit organization great? This is a perennial question faced by many volunteer and professional leaders. The challenge is always to figure out what must be done to make an organization stand out among the plethora of nonprofit agencies in existence providing a myriad of services in the areas of health, education and welfare, among others. Is the difference between mediocrity and greatness what an organization does to service its clients and members? Or is it the way an organization functions internally that makes it stand out among other institutions?

On the surface, the recipe for greatness is an organization that is innovative, creative, responds to social, education or health needs, works effectively and efficiently, develops active volunteer leadership and has achieved financial sustainability. Certainly, this is all true. However, these characteristics alone do not make a great organization.

There are many additional characteristics that push an organization into the outstanding zone and in my opinion, the one that serves as the swing vote from poor and mediocre into greatness is the culture of the organization.

The culture of the organization is revealed in the way people communicate with each other and the tone the administration sets in its relationship to staff and the outside community. For example, how is the phone answered? When someone calls, is he or she treated with respect? Does the person answering the phone respond with a tone that conveys eagerness to be of assistance and an underlying positive energy that represents the organization?

The reason I am stressing phone calls is because this is the first contact the community has with the organization. The nature of the phone call is not important [or immaterial]. Whether it is a client looking for assistance or a donor seeking information about making a donation, each and every person should receive the same “hello” in a way that communicates the warmth and uniqueness of the organization. I still remember from my days as a student in the mid 1960’s calling Massachusetts Mental Health Hospital and being greeted by the operator with the unfortunate turn of phrase, “Mass Mental, May I help you?” Needless to say, if you were calling for assistance you might think twice before pursuing mental health services from an institution that greeted callers with those words.

Beyond that first phone call, emphasis should also be placed on the human relations culture in an organization. How does the administration relate to its staff? How are volunteers treated by the staff of the organization?

Most organizations have a “human relations signature.” The way the executive staff relates to its staff and volunteers sets the tone for the entire organizational culture and manifests itself in the way everyone – from the support staff to the most active volunteer – are treated and considered.

A case in point is the large nonprofit that recruited and utilized volunteers to deliver their major services to the community when they received a real wake-up call one morning when a number of volunteers told the volunteer president, “You give me the feeling that you are doing me a favor by allowing me to volunteer.” It was a rude awakening and it caused the CEO to take notice and realize there needed to be a 180 degree turn around in their policies and practices concerning volunteers. It is not a stretch that if the agency treats its volunteers with this attitude they are probably not much better with staff members.

No matter how successful a nonprofit organization is there is always room to evaluate and improve its culture. The CEO and the executive staff may assume there is a cordial and congenial atmosphere in the organization but sometimes the reality tells a different story. When this happens there needs to be a thoughtful process that will strengthen the organization’s culture.

A way of assessing the organization’s culture is to form a committee that is composed of volunteer leadership, staff, community representatives and funders, when appropriate. The committee’s purpose is to understand the organization’s culture and to determine whether it reflects the values the agency represents in its services to the community. This self-evaluation process is the first step towards improving the agency’s relationships with its staff, volunteers and the greater community.

The challenge for every agency is to strive to create an organizational culture that reflects its core values as it functions on a daily basis. Only in this way will an organization achieve greatness – something that will become evident to those within and those without.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.