What We Know About Great Organizational Culture

organization cultureBy Joelle Asaro Berman, Dan Fast, Adam Pollack and Marci Soifer

When the four of us, former colleagues at Birthright Israel NEXT (aka NEXT), sat down to discuss what inspires us in our day-to-day work, we realized that it’s all about the interplay between a team of the right people and the culture that supports them. During the years we spent working together, we had the opportunity to co-create a shared organizational culture. Looking back on it now, we recognized that we had some useful tips and principles to share with the broader Jewish nonprofit sector (and hopefully beyond).

We learned that if you want to create a place where employees love to work, it’s critical to build a culture that nurtures, challenges, and celebrates your team. As a framework, we outlined NEXT’s core values and cultural traits – learning, being opportunity-driven, and collaboration – below. We believe these values are often transferable, and hope this “case study” helps you consider how your organization can create a great work culture that also cultivates your team.

1) Learning: Our work demanded that we prioritize learning: learning about our audiences, learning from those in analogous fields and roles, understanding whether or not our strategies worked, and ultimately, sharing our learnings across the organization to benefit our work as a whole.

A critical first step to learning was challenging one another to be active observers of our work. In order to do this, we employed assumption-based planning methods, and built robust feedback loops for our differing audiences: engagement professionals, executives, Birthright Israel participants, and funders. We sent surveys after every program, analyzed marketing campaigns and social media activity, checked-in regularly through one-on-one meetings, assembled “focus groups” for specific inquiries about young Jewish adults and the communal landscape, and conducted market research. Additionally, we used the “PaRDeS” hermeneutic of Jewish text study to analyze and understand what our audiences were telling us, which directly informed our offerings.

We designed multiple processes to capture and share learnings among our staff. A regular calendar alert reminded us to reflect on what we had learned each week. We recorded our findings using a Google Form that populated a shared spreadsheet, where we could then review each others’ learnings. Every staff member took part in this process. Periodically, members of our team presented larger findings and trends at staff meetings, where we probed to uncover broader implications and solutions.

Senior staff complemented this learning process with leadership opportunities, charging staff at all levels to generate content for staff meetings (including divrei torah), and present new knowledge at staff retreats. To supplement our learning, we worked with coaches and consultants to provide one-on-one training in areas like evaluation, facilitation, and communications. To us, this demonstrated a holistic view of our professional development beyond our current roles – an investment in our overall career development and our community’s talent pool.

2) Opportunity-Driven: Being “opportunity-driven” is first about asking questions; next, identifying new opportunities for audience engagement, organizational growth, and success; and then experimenting. Senior staff created an environment where our team was empowered to not only identify areas for change or growth, but also respond by implementing our own lean, creative solutions. This enabled us to feel confident taking risks and trying new things. For example, our Opportunity Labs (staff gatherings for pitching new ideas and getting constructive feedback) and bi-weekly all-staff meetings provided structured space for team brainstorming and paved the way for new experiments. We created internal feedback loops to help us learn from these experiments, and when/how we should “pivot.”

3) Collaboration: This is the engine that made our work happen. In addition to regular staff meetings, we attended annual retreats designed to give our entire team the opportunity to reflect and brainstorm across departments and without hierarchy. An “open door” policy further enabled any staff member to get on-the-fly feedback from senior leadership and colleagues without needing to calendar meetings.

We also adopted technology that supported collaboration and progress. YouEarnedIt provided collegial recognition and awards for great work. With Google Apps, our staff collaborated in real-time through live chat and comments. Google Hangout helped us deepen relationships with colleagues in the field, building a stronger rapport between the national and regional offices.

Our operation was based on this culture of learning, being opportunity-driven, and open collaboration. We utilized design thinking and a startup mentality: taking risks, learning, and “failing forward,” acknowledging that our audiences’ needs and interests – and forces that guide our world – are ever-changing.

What we now realize, particularly as we’ve moved on to new projects and organizations with different missions, is that these cultural traits are both adaptable across many environments and core to a satisfying work environment. We keep these values top of mind when vetting new opportunities.

Building a “great place to work” isn’t just a catchphrase – it’s deep, challenging, and critical work. But it’s worth taking the time to do this well; if an organizational culture is strong enough, its lessons endure.

Joelle Asaro Berman is the Program Director of Amplifier, a project of Natan, and can be reached at joelle@natan.org.

Dan Fast is the Manager of Special Projects at Reboot and can be reached at dan@rebooters.net.

Adam Pollack is seeking career opportunities at the crossroads of talent development and organizational culture. He lives in San Francisco and can be reached at adambpollack@gmail.com.

Marci Soifer is the Program and Operations Director at the Foundation for Jewish Camp and can be reached at marci@jewishcamp.org.