Nonprofit Organizational Culture Assessment Findings

Whether it’s providing emergency shelter or hot meals for an individual or family or raising funds to further the mission of a larger group, nonprofit organizations perform a crucial function for their communities, and provide a message of hope and caring to multitudes of those less fortunate–day in and day out. Led by advocates armed with a focused vision and unswerving commitment to their purpose, these nonprofit organizations answer a higher calling, often with little managerial or organizational experience. Programs and services vary by region and organization, but they share a common goal of making a difference in their communities and across the globe.

We are honored to share this story of a citizens group concerned about the number of people in need of help and a gathering place to share. We have kept this organization anonymous to maintain the privacy of its members and beneficiaries. Yet, for more than 50 years of seeking to make a difference in their community, resources, ideas, and volunteer hours  were pooled to build and operate a thriving program that has served its community to this day.

Assessing Workplace Culture in a Non-profit Setting

The usefulness of organizational culture as a construct for research and an assessment tool for organizations has been well established over the past decades.1 While research and practice involving organizational culture are, to a large extent, associated with for-profit organizations, crucial work in the usefulness of understanding organizational culture for nonprofit organizations and its actual impact and practicality can be found in broad sectors of society.

Research exists on culture in nonprofits and its relationship with outcomes such as fundraising success and employee attitudes, but more can be made known about the different ways in which paid staff members and volunteers experience organizational culture.2

We had an opportunity to consult for a nonprofit organization in our community that is undergoing major changes, including mergers with other community organizations, a vast increase in the number of employees, and an expansion of programs and services it offers to the community. 

After a tour of the site and conversations with the organization’s board of directors, it was clear that an assessment of organizational culture would provide important information to understand the issues that the organization is facing, and how the experienced culture may differ between paid staff and volunteers.

A Perspective on Work by Employees & Volunteers

The Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI® ) was administered to the managers, employees, and volunteers of a nonprofit organization.3 Our findings highlighted that the culture experienced by volunteers could be very different from that experienced by employees – even when these individuals work side by side. In our study, volunteers reportedly experienced a much more Constructive culture than did employees, and more generally, the culture profile for volunteers (compared to that of employees) more closely resembled what is historically considered to be ideal for the organization. (See Figure 1)

While employees reportedly experienced stronger Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive styles than did volunteers, these findings can likely be attributed to the type of work that goes on in this organization, which in turn affects the systems and structures, and the perceived cultural differences between these two groups


Figure 1, Click to enlarge image.
Nonprofit Circumplex profiles

Our impressions during the interview with the Board of Directors asserted that there is a turnover issue (or a low commitment issue) with paid employees, while on the other hand, volunteers have been committed and demonstrated low turnover over the years – which is evidently reflected in the results of the OCI assessment. 

It should be noted that for nonprofit organizations, two different sets of effective management practices and policies are required to reach the same output for both paid and volunteer workers, as research has suggested two distinct sets of factors impacting their respective outlooks with the organization.4, 5

Transactional & Relational Factors-Same Output, Different Outlook

While it is intuitive that a certain level of commitment and personal ethics is required to volunteer with a nonprofit organization (i.e., a match in values between volunteers and the organization’s mission), there are organizational factors that can also impact the level of volunteers’ intention to stay with the organization – and they can be drastically different from factors influencing paid employees’ intention to stay.6, 7 

For example, while paid employees’ commitment to the organization is largely impacted through transactional, relational, and normative factors, volunteers tend to evaluate their intention to stay with the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) based primarily on relational factors, as well as the alignment of personal values and motivations with those of the organization.8, 9

  • Examples of relational factors include being socially integrated as “part of the team” within the organization and being involved through effective communication across organizational levels, and these are important to both paid and unpaid workers in an organization.10

  • While some transactional factors play a role in retaining volunteers’ commitment, the impact is minor.

By definition, volunteers and organizations do not have a transactional relationship in a traditional monetary sense; however, commitment and intention to stay are often dictated by management practices, including proper training and support as well as adequate access to resources and integration within the organization.11

When Differences Collide-Expectations & Perceptions of Organizational Culture

Generally, in nonprofit organizations and especially in organizations undergoing major change, non-profit employees may feel a greater sense of stress, uncertainty, and job insecurity. These factors may then contribute to stronger levels of Defensive cultural styles as greater expectations to protect one’s own status and security emerge.12

Volunteers of nonprofit organizations likely do not experience such expectations within their work roles, or at least to the same extent, and more generally may be treated differently, with behavioral expectations more positive and Constructive in nature. Most nonprofit organizations rely heavily on volunteers to handle their daily operations and to keep the organization going; naturally, volunteers may be treated differently in terms of appreciation and respect for altruistically committing and serving the organization’s mission.13, 14

Expectations for paid employees and volunteers may differ in several ways. Most volunteers do not undergo the same or similar procedures as their paid counterparts.15 For example, volunteers are often not screened during the application process and are often retained in their roles even if they are not a great fit for the position which likely would not be the case for paid employees.16 

Furthermore, volunteers have different expectations within their roles and responsibilities, as volunteers’ responsibilities are often focused on tackling tasks that are directly related to the mission of the organization without having to go through the administrative procedures employees do.17 As such, the experienced culture may be more positive or Constructive for volunteers because of the nature of their roles within the organization since their roles are less likely to involve pressures or expectations that are associated with Defensive styles (i.e., threats to status and security).

Our Findings

Organizational culture isn’t a concern only for large corporations or young startups. Rather, it is important for all organizations as it sets the context for everything organizations do, and this includes nonprofits that serve their communities with pride and purpose.

In our case study, findings suggest that it cannot be assumed employees and volunteers experience non-profit culture in the same way within an organization, even when they work side by side, and that the OCI should be administered to both groups when assessing organizational culture in nonprofit organizations.

Editor’s Note: For other real-life nonprofit organizational culture examples  consider these cases: The Girl Scouts of the USA and Catholic publishing company, The Word Among Us.


1 Ashkanasy, N. M., Wilderom, C. P. M., & Peterson, M. F. (2011). The handbook of organizational culture and climate, 2 nd ed. Los Angeles, CA, US: Sage.

2 Rousseau, D. M. (1990). Normative beliefs in fund-raising organizations: Linking culture to organizational performance and individual responses. Group & Organization Studies, 15, 448-460. Retrieved from

3 Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory ®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

4 Carvalho, A., & Sampaio, M. (2017). Volunteer management beyond prescribed best practice: a case study of Portuguese non-profits. Personnel Review, 46(2), 410-428. doi: 10.1108/pr-04-2014-0081

5 Romaioli, D., Nencini, A., & Meneghini, A. (2016). How to foster commitment among volunteers: A social constructionist study in Italian nonprofit organizations. Journal of Social Service Research, 42(5), 718-728. doi: 10.1080/01488376.2016.1202880; Fitzpatrick, T., Remmer, J., & Leimanis, M. (2014). A study exploring risk management issues among volunteers in an oncology support program. Journal of Social Service Research, 41(1), 25-38. doi: 10.1080/01488376.2014.930945

6 Rothschild, J., & Milofsky, C. (2006). The centrality of values, passions, and ethics in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 17(2), 137-143. doi: 10.1002/nml.139

7 Romaioli, Nencini, & Meneghini, 2016

8 Meyer, J., & Allen, N. (1997). Commitment in the workplace. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publication.

9 (Stirling, Kilpatrick, & Orpin, 2011)

10 (Romaioli, Nencini, & Mengehini, 2016; Fitzpatrick, Remmer, & Leimanis, 2015)

11 Romaioli, Nencini, & Mengehini, 2016; Fitzpatrick, Remmer, & Leimanis, 2015)

12 Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI): Interpretation and development guide . Plymouth, MI, US: Human Synergistics.

13 Boezeman, E., & Ellemers, N. (2014). Volunteer leadership: The role of pride and respect in organizational identification and leadership satisfaction. Leadership, 10(2), 160-173. doi: 10.1177/1742715012467687

14 Ramaioli, Nencini, & Mengehini, 2016

15 Stirling, C., Kilpatrick, S., & Orpin, P. (2011). A psychological contract perspective to the link between non-profit organizations’ management practices and volunteer sustainability. Human Resource Development International, 14(3), 321-336. doi: 10.1080/13678868.2011.585066

16 Carvalho & Sampaio, 2016

17 Stirling, Kilpatrick, & Oprin, 2011

Constructive Organizational Cultures May Reduce Perceived Discrimination in the Workplace

Blatant discrimination is now a much rarer phenomenon in the workplace than it used to be. Since the introduction of modern legislative policies (i.e., affirmative action in the USA and the Employment Equity Act in Canada), along with the increased awareness of social justice, issues pertaining to systematic or blatant discrimination in the workplace have decreased in the last decades.1

While legislation often determines what constitutes blatant discrimination and reduces the likelihood of its occurrence, discrimination in more subtle forms is still experienced in organizations. That is, the perception of discrimination is still a prevalent issue, as many employees continue to believe that they are receiving unfair treatment due to their demographic characteristics, such as ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, or any other physical features.

Perceptions of discrimination in the workplace have organization-wide repercussions as they can lead to variety of negative outcomes, such as lower levels of psychological well-being, decreased job satisfaction and commitment, reduced job performance and productivity, and increased turnover intention.2,3,4 More importantly, these perceptions are not confined only to those who feel that they are the target of discrimination, but affect all employees in an organization where these perceptions exist.

As our research indicates, both minority and non-minority members perceive discrimination in the workplace—and this can have adverse impacts on both groups of members. Note that this research was broadly inclusive with respect to how “minority” was defined, as the term was not limited to ethnic background but also inclusive of other minority groups, such as gender, age, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation.

Perceptions of discrimination in the workplace have organization-wide repercussions as they can lead to variety of negative outcomes, such as lower levels of psychological well-being …

Research we conducted with 153 American full-time employees of organizations in various industries using the Organizational Culture Inventory®5 has demonstrated the positive impact of Constructive organizational culture norms in a diverse workforce. Specifically, Constructive norms were found to lead to lower levels of perceived organizational discrimination, while Aggressive/Defensive organizational culture norms were found to lead to the highest level of perceived organizational discrimination.

Research by Sherif,6 carried out as far back as the 1950s, demonstrated that prejudice and discrimination can be reduced or even eliminated by creating new group boundaries that are inclusive of all.7 When all members of an organization feel a part of a superordinate group, in-group membership is based on organizational membership rather than demographic characteristics.

In other words, organizations that highlight and emphasize Constructive organizational norms encourage members to create positive interactions within the community, build meaningful relationships with others, and approach various tasks in order to meet the collective goals of the organization. These supportive and encouraging interactions, which are based on collective goals, create a sense of community or in-group membership within the organization. The perception of discrimination, consequently, decreases as demographic characteristics – such as gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and religion – become less salient through meaningful and positive relationships that are established in the pursuit of common goals.

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Harris, M., Lievens, F., & Van Hoye, G. (2004). “I Think They Discriminated Against Me”: Using Prototype Theory and Organizational Justice Theory for Understanding Perceived Discrimination in Selection and Promotion Situations. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 12(1-2), 54-65.

Triana, M., Jayasinghe, M., & Pieper, J. (2015). Perceived workplace racial discrimination and its correlates: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 36(4), 491-513.

Connor, J. & Miller, A. (2014). Occupational stress and adaptation of immigrant nurses from the Philippines. Journal of Research In Nursing, 19(6), 504-515.

Goldman, B., Gutek, B., Stein, J., & Lewis, K. (2006). Employment Discrimination in Organizations: Antecedents and Consequences. Journal of Management, 32(6), 786-830.

Cooke, R.A. & Lafferty, J.C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics

Sherif, M. (1958). Superordinate Goals in the Reduction of Intergroup Conflict. American Journal Of Sociology, 63(4), 349-356.

Cooke, R. A., & Szumal, J. L. (1993). Measuring normative beliefs and shared behavioral expectations in organizations: The reliability and validity of the Organizational Culture Inventory. Psychological Reports, 72 (3), 1299-1330