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5 Nonprofit Culture Tensions and How to Address Them

Reading Time: 4 Minutes

At Trepwise, many of the purpose-driven organizations we support are nonprofits made up of individuals who seek positive change by tackling social issues and making a difference for those they serve – but even the most dedicated teams can face internal challenges. Workplace culture will arise in any organization regardless of an intentional approach. Below are the top five cultural tensions we’ve come across in our work, along with solutions to turn things around:

1. Mission Mania vs. Cultural Cohesion

Nonprofits often have a clear mission or purpose, which fuels their day-to-day work. While mission-oriented, they may overlook the importance of defining a clear cultural vision. Organizations must have a shared vision for an ideal or desired culture to avoid being held back by challenges that hinder their effectiveness.

Solution: By establishing core cultural values and a shared vision around an ideal culture, organizations can begin to develop a roadmap for decision-making around culture, ensure alignment throughout the team, and increase the staff’s sense of belonging. For instance, if your team establishes cultural values like collaboration, innovation, or dedication, these cultural values should be seen and felt across the organization. Beneficiaries of your work should be able to describe you as collaborative or dedicated in how you deliver your services. Team members should be showcasing the innovative approaches they bring to their work. Core cultural values directly connect to how a nonprofit brings its ideal culture to life and carries out its mission. Nonprofits can also engage beneficiaries of their work in developing cultural values. Regardless, a set of guiding principles embedded into daily operations is necessary to create a culture that reflects the team’s aspirations.

2. Silos & Secrecy vs. Collaboration & Knowledge Sharing

Silos can emerge within nonprofits, hindering collaboration and stifling innovation. When this occurs, departments or divisions within organizations can feel isolated, resulting in a lack of information flow across the team and challenges with teamwork. Valuable insights and expertise may also remain untapped, which can lead to duplication of efforts or missed opportunities for collaboration.

Solution: Nonprofits can create structured forums for information-sharing and teamwork to foster cross-departmental collaboration and maximize organizational impact. Regular team meetings should include updates on projects and initiatives from various departments, creating transparency and reinforcing alignment with organizational priorities. Team lunches or project-specific brainstorming sessions also facilitate opportunities for team members across the organization to share knowledge. Leadership can also establish cross-departmental initiatives to encourage knowledge exchange and cultivate a culture of collaboration and support.

3. Feedback Fizzle vs. Ongoing Growth & Development

Consistent accountability is essential to maintaining and strengthening the culture of a nonprofit. Annual reviews are standard practice for organizations and provide opportunities to share strengths and areas of opportunity to promote staff professional development. Many teams need more frequent feedback opportunities to share performance expectations, which can lead to a team that lacks connection to how their role contributes to the organization’s overarching or cultural goals.

Solution: Ongoing feedback loops provide opportunities for constructive criticism and praise to be shared more frequently and are crucial to contributing to a culture of continuous improvement while recognizing team achievements. Brief check-ins, both formal and informal, provide opportunities for team members to offer feedback and suggestions for improvement. Performance management should also be tied to an organization’s cultural vision and values to empower their team’s growth while keeping them motivated toward their individual and shared goals.

4. Reactive Responses vs. Proactive Prevention

Sometimes, leadership only responds when cultural problems reach a boiling point, like a team with low morale. Consistent leadership plays a critical role in defining and maintaining organizational culture. Rather than addressing underlying issues, reactive responses may amplify tensions rather than address root causes.

Solution: Through proactive leadership, nonprofits can prioritize culture-building initiatives and ensure cultural health is centered. Examples of proactive prevention strategies include:

  • Regularly discussing cultural initiatives in leadership meetings.
  • Conducting surveys to gauge employee sentiment.
  • Championing initiatives for the team that promote a thriving culture.

These approaches allow leadership to identify areas for improvement before tensions arise. 

5. Workaholic Wonderland vs. Organic Connections

While a committed team makes achieving a nonprofit’s mission possible, organizations may emphasize work-related goals and overlook the humans who drive the work, which can lead to burnout and isolation. Facilitating opportunities for team bonding can help team members feel more connected to each other and their work.

Solution: Nonprofits can facilitate organic team connections and foster community by organizing and encouraging team-building events, social gatherings, and informal interactions between team members. For remote or hybrid teams, digital forums like dedicated channels for communication platforms (e.g., Slack or Microsoft Teams) allow team members to share informal information like pictures of their pets, funny memes, or life updates. These teams may also benefit from meeting in person periodically throughout the year. Initiatives that promote organic connections are grounded in shared empathy between team members and opportunities to foster trust, understanding, and a more effective team. While they are small interactions, they can build a strong foundation for a positive and collaborative work environment. 

Addressing cultural tensions within nonprofits requires intentional effort and a commitment from leadership that resonates across organizations. By identifying these challenges and implementing thoughtful strategies, nonprofits can develop a vibrant, inclusive culture that empowers their teams to fulfill their mission and drive positive change in their communities. 

Visit to learn more about how Trepwise can help your organization create a vision-driven culture with strong values and a dedicated team.