Strategies for Cultural Change

Strategies for Cultural Change


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


I’m working with several groups right now who are interested in changing their Board’s culture. Specifically, they have Boards who have not been particularly involved in raising money and are interested in encouraging and supporting Board level efforts in this area.

And they are having trouble.

I have emphasized that raising money can be defined in many different ways. That it’s not all about asking. That it’s about building relationships with donors. That it is and should be part of the responsibility of all Board member. And that just getting to know the donors (and introducing Board members to them as well) would result in a significant improvement in their capacity to raise money. That doing so would result in building a more sustainable organization with greater local and regional capacity to protect land.

And still they’re having trouble.

As Peter Drucker once famously said: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

So I read with interest a blog post from FSG, an international consulting firm “guiding business and foundation leaders and a deep understanding of how to create social impact,” called How to Create a Corporate Culture that Supports Shared Value.

The ideas behind Shared Value as a characteristic of corporate culture are interesting in their own right and directly relevant to our work in community conservation. The model suggests that social and environmental problems have an impact on profitability and competitiveness, and that capturing a competitive advantage requires businesses to take a long-term “shared value” view with that of their communities.

Nonetheless, I was more specifically interested in what the author, Dane Smith, had to say about the ingredients necessary for successfully changing the organizational culture. It is extremely difficult, says Smith, because so “much of it is not visible, as it resides in mental models that are shaped by years of a company’s history and performance.”

And then he offers four core ideas for strengthening the culture around shared values, and I have included them here. The underlined parts are his; the comments are mine, applying his thoughts to the issue of changing a Board’s culture related to building relationships with donors.

My operating premise in all of these discussions is that donors are partners in the work of land trusts. That treating them merely as sources of money to help “us” continue to do “our” work sells them short.

Objectively assess the existing culture and identify gaps between your current culture and your aspirations. Draw a clear picture of what it might look like five years from now if everyone on the Board was actively building relationships with donors. Fulfilling their roles as ambassadors into the communities they represent. What, or who, is standing in the way? How is the aspirational vision being talked about outside of Board meetings? Is the need for this role shift commonly understood? Commonly accepted? Or is it being sabotaged?

Use performance management to encourage employees and leaders to embrace shared value. I’ve moved gradually away from talking about accountability and toward talking about integrity – establishing the expectation that Board members will actually do what they commit to, for no other reason than there exists a culture where it is expected. This organizational integrity does not happen accidentally. It happens because somebody notices. Leadership needs to be that somebody, just like the ED or CEO regularly establishes expectations, removes barriers to success, and regularly notices performance for staff. I’ve written before about how important I believe it is for Board leaders to regularly check in – individually – with Board members. And I have provided a protocol for Board evaluations.

Identify and promote leaders who embody the shared value culture. Part of the idea is that what Board members see the Chair do matters. What the members of the Executive Committee do matters. What the Committee Chairs do matters. If the organizational leaders are not participating in building relationships with donors, how can we expect other Board members to? It follows that if we regularly recruit Board members into leadership positions who themselves are not already leading by example, how can we expect our Board culture to ever change?

Find and cultivate champions who are influential and can encourage a culture shift. I’ve often quipped that staff cannot hold Board members accountable. This means that cultural change at the Board level must be Board driven. And that means you will need to recruit champions. Both from within the Board, and as necessary from the community at large.

Changing the Board culture is not easy. And it won’t happen overnight. The systems in place right now either evolved or were explicitly created to maintain the current status quo. To change the status quo, you will need to question, evaluate, and change those systems.

Best wishes.


Cheers, and Have a great week.




Photo by Thomas Muhl courtesy of

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