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Culture wars: Do you really think you can change the culture of your not for profit?

9 December 2019 at 5:15 pm
Oliver May
Cultural change is possible, writes Oliver May, but many of us need to think again about the “how”.

Oliver May | 9 December 2019 at 5:15 pm


Culture wars: Do you really think you can change the culture of your not for profit?
9 December 2019 at 5:15 pm

Cultural change is possible, writes Oliver May, but many of us need to think again about the “how”.

The last two months feel like they were all about fraud, fraud, fraud. October saw charity fraud awareness week, followed by international fraud awareness week in November. And throughout all the awareness events in which I was involved, one key issue kept on breaking the surface: culture.

If there was a word that defined the discussion about integrity in 2019, it would be that one. Culture was also at the heart of the dialogue around safeguarding in the sector, for example, and was a key theme in the report of the Royal Commission on Banking.

And yet, while we all agree on the importance of culture in fighting fraud, corruption and wider misconduct, many not for profits still do not take it seriously. I wonder if this is partly because some managers still believe that nothing can really be done about it. Maybe those ideas derive from flawed, past cultural initiatives, and so there’s a myth to bust here: Cultural change is possible, but many of us need to think again about the “how”.

Read more: Five ways you can protect your charity from fraud

Firstly, we need to be clear on what organisational culture is. While there are almost too many definitions to count, we need an actionable one – cultural change is not theoretical, it’s something we need to treat as core business. To build on that of Maryam Hussein, “culture” is the way that employees and volunteers think, feel, and act in relation to their day-to-day work-related activities.

Secondly, we need to recognise that influencing the culture of an organisation is not a project with a start and an end point. We can use various means to encourage, steer and monitor culture, but it has to be within an ongoing program. In truth, culture has stakeholders, rather than subjects. A piece of it is owned by every participant. And those participants change over time, as do their ideas, beliefs and priorities. Influencing them to think, feel and act in particular ways is a continuous process.

Thirdly, as they go about influencing culture, many not for profits get hung up on codes of conduct, policies and procedures. These are important, but they are the starting point rather than the conclusion. We know that employees are more influenced by those around them than policy, for example. Addressing culture is about how we encourage and leverage behaviours within the code of conduct, not just about creating the code itself.

And finally, there is a balance to strike between focusing too much on any one “culture” (anti-fraud culture, integrity culture, risk culture, safeguarding culture, and so on), and on aspiring to too generic a culture to truly serve any of these. As with our management of risk, our management of culture needs to be integrated and collaborative.

Once we start to think more pragmatically about how we shape the way that our stakeholders think, feel and act, we can start to see how it is possible to do so. It was fantastic during the two fraud weeks to see so many people recognise the importance of it, and it was a relief to see that acknowledged more broadly this year. Let’s make 2020 the year that we see real change in our approach to culture.


About the author: Oliver May was previously the head of counter-fraud for Oxfam GB. He is now a Director in Deloitte’s forensic practice, where he helps not-for-profit, corporate and government clients to manage integrity risks. He blogs at Second Marshmallow and his book, Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector (Routledge, 2016), is out now. A follow-up book for international NGOs on managing terrorist financing risk is out in 2020.

Oliver May  |  @ProBonoNews

Author and global fraud expert.

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