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I’ve recently talked to two charity leaders I respect about their organizations entering their “3.0” phase.

People much more studied than myself can offer a fuller exploration of the stages of development organizations experience, and whether they differ in the charitable sector. What I’m pondering is how leaders approach organizational culture in each of the common (oversimplified) stages.

Organization 1.0 The Start Up

Most often driven by a charismatic founder, start up charities are typically working on the frontlines of an issue or community. They are tactical, adaptable, and highly committed. Staff and volunteers may not have begun as family or friends but they soon take on those characteristics in one another’s lives. Passion is the defining quality of the organizational culture; systems and structures are inconvenient nuisances if not openly suspect. 

These organizations are dependant on a culture that is usually a strong reflection of the personality of the founder(s). A “you and me against the world” mindset and absolute loyalty to the cause are rarely questioned. It’s exciting, demanding, fluid, and extremely engaged.

The danger here is that the culture can easily become inbred. Asking hard internal questions or challenging assumptions can be seen as betrayal. Even a desire to learn and grow may be filtered through the primary leader as the arbiter of truth and value. 

Start Up charities can leverage the energy of this phase to drive the hard work of getting established, while being deliberate about preventing one person or a small inside circle from being the only considered opinions. Fostering humility and curiosity as core practices can help overcome the tendency to overestimate their own insightfulness.

Organization 2.0 Founders vs. Settlers

When the founder leaves or otherwise becomes less authoritative and certain, the organization can begin to broaden its leadership base and increase the focus of programs and projects. Developing systems that address some of the hazards of a Start Up and taking a higher level strategic look at where you fit into the larger ecosystem of influences on your chosen area of impact become critical matters, but they often feel like a drag on the positive energy that motivated so many of the first generation staff, volunteers, and donors.

A growing awareness that “we don’t know everything” usually leads to existing team members developing some level of specialization. Networking with some relevant partners is valued, but may not easily contain the vulnerability to derive the most benefit. A move to greater professionalism is held in tension with powerful memories of how fun and urgent things were at the beginning.

This is the stage in which outsiders begin to settle into board and staff roles without the shared history of the early years. They rarely have the same degree of radical loyalty and sacrifice that was common in the Start Up, and some degree of tension is to be expected and must be resolved.

Everything is in flux, including the organizational culture. Unspoken rules and untested assumptions become a minefield everyone must navigate for the organization to mature. Clarity is the critical need. As frustrating as it may be, now is the time to invest significant time, energy, and resources in drilling down on the core mission, vision, values, and dynamics that will remain essential when so much is changing.

Organization 3.0 Best Practices

Having navigated the dangerous waters of 2.0 and found core clarity the organization is now primed to leverage their hard earned experience and insight to push for greater strategic impact. Often this involves increasing advocacy work and being an intentional example to others. Expertise becomes more valuable than seniority and some long term team members may find that their role has outgrown their capacity.

A strong focus on best practices and involvement in higher impact networks and partnerships requires a significantly different approach. The metrics change, commitment is more to the cause than the organization, and its no longer essential that we all be best friends. Naturally this will leave some nostalgic for 1.0.

The danger here is that maturing strategy and execution can eclipse giving attention to organizational culture. We return to making assumptions instead of having conversations. Unspoken expectations can quietly accumulate and begin to undermine all the good that has been developed.

Wise leaders will push against the tendency to build and maintain silos, continually casting a vision greater than the sum of the parts. Team building needs to be emphasized alongside professional development, with fun in high supply. Culture conversations must stay on the agenda and seen as at least as important as strategy and execution. Staleness and excessive turnover are very real risks.

There is something to be written about how these stages merge, decline, and repeat. But that’s not for today. The hope here is that leaders will consider what is necessary in the current stage of their organization’s development to establish, maintain, and multiply a healthy culture than enables the greatest impact.