Bridging the Culture Gap

Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Entrepreneurship

As I talk with social entrepreneurs about the biggest challenges they face in making their social enterprises successful, several themes have emerged. I’ll be writing about them here.

One of those themes is “bridging the culture gap.” I’ve written about this topic before, and it deserves much more thought and exploration. Social entrepreneurs experience the pulling and hauling that takes place between the competing culture of a social enterprise.

On the one hand, there is the non-profit culture. It’s the “helping culture,” where the social mission of the business is the driving force. On the other hand, there is the for-profit, business culture. This is the culture that is driven by bureaucratic, “make money” forces.

Bridging this gap between the non-profit and the for-profit cultures is an ongoing challenge, and one that is mentioned by many of the social entrepreneurs I’ve talked to.

As I have researched this challenge, I’ve come across a couple of resources that I think can be very helpful in understanding better the dynamics of the pulling and hauling between the two cultures.

Two experts in social enterprise have already written about this dynamic. Heather McLeod Grant and Elizabeth Bremner wrote about a workshop presented in the Bay Area back in 2003. The workshop included a presentation by Dr. Joanne Martin, professor at Stanford University. Dr. Martin presented two models of organizational culture. One model is the bureaucratic culture. This culture is frequently found in businesses. The core beliefs and values of such an organization include: “profit is our mission,” “efficiency,” “measurement,” “simplistic decision-making driven by a concern about the bottom-line,” “hierarchy.”

You can learn more about these two models–bureaucracy vs. the helping culture–by reading about them in this article:

Rothschild-Witt, J. (1979). The collectivist organization: an alternative to rational bureaucratic models. American Sociological Review, 44(4), 509-527.

(While the article is a bit old, the content is still excellent and timely.)

On the other hand, non-profits can have dramatically contrasting values: “mission over profit,” “personal development over efficiency,” “qualitative vs. quantitative measurement,” “more complex decision-making that emphasizes inclusion of many constituencies.”

How can social enterprises overcome this gap?

The workshop generated a number of alternatives for bridging the gap:

1. Build equal, honest, trusting relationships.

2. Establish norms of mutual accountability.

3. Increase learning and knowledge transfer.

4. Use the 5-Cs:

  • Clarity
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Customization
  • Consistency

REDF, the large social enterprise funder from the Bay Area, was offered as a model for applying these five simple, but powerful tools.

5. Build organizational capacity, through staff and board development.

6. Learn each other’s language.

I’ll be writing more about these interesting ideas. Offer your own take on these challenges. What has helped your organization?

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