Maintaining Culture Connectivity of Nonprofits While Remote

Drexel University’s Gupta Governance Institute and Grant Thornton’s biweekly Nonprofit Directors Dialogue Miniseries features nonprofit leaders and board members as they share insights and strategies for turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s successes.

How can organizations engage their employees and maintain culture connectivity in remote environments and what role should the board play?

There’s an old saying attributed to Peter Drucker that says, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I’m reflecting on that now. Every organization always says, “Oh, we have a very unique culture,” and unique is an overused term in that sense. The American Cancer Society is one of the largest nonprofits in the world, and we do have a unique culture. We have been onboarding people that no one has ever met, never mind the people that may have joined in January, February, or December at some of the highest levels. Our Chief Scientific and Medical Officer joined just a couple months before the pandemic, and we’ve all only met him once in person. We had a new CIO join during the pandemic. We had a new CFO join whose first day was March 8th. I think that they have been steeped in the culture already.

Everybody at the American Cancer Society tends to be here for a reason. They may have had a family member who has been affected by the disease or they may just really believe in cancer research for whatever reason, so that has made it a little bit easier to find common connection to the culture. We have found that it takes our managers and directors and vice presidents and senior vice presidents extra time with each person because they don’t have those personal interactions as much. It’s important they reach out and say, “Here are the norms…” and such.

What is not to be overlooked is the shared experience of what everyone is going through. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Our managers and staff in Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Florida and Puerto Rico are all going through the same thing that all of our volunteers are going through. So, it’s a little bit different from what happened after 9/11, which certainly was a national catastrophe and tragedy, but that affected staff in New York and Washington much differently than staff in Oklahoma City for example. So, I think there is a certain coming together in face of this crisis that will pay dividends as we emerge from it.