Is a “culture of service” harming nonprofit professionals?

Published on Charity Village
Date: 30th June 2022

This article is an excerpt from Conscious Service: Ten Ways to Reclaim your Calling, Move beyond Burnout, and Make a Difference without Sacrificing Yourself (Hazelden Publishing, Publication Date: April 2022) and is reprinted with permission.

The role of workplace and community culture has become a major focus in discussions about organizational development and effectiveness. What do we mean when we use the word culture to describe an organization or an industry? 

From an anthropological perspective, culture consists of norms, values, rituals, traditions, beliefs, and symbols that any group of human beings agree to have a shared meaning and enough significance to guide our common life and work. Culture establishes the rules we generally operate by within these human systems. Of course, not everybody in any group follows these rules to the letter, but even rule breakers and outlaws have a sense of what it is they’re breaking and what the law that they’re trying to elude looks like. 

Culture provides a road map of sorts or a basic blueprint that frames and informs the actions, decisions, approaches, and practices of any group or organization. One of the beautiful aspects of human culture is that its details are constantly changing and evolving to fit the needs of the time and place. 

The culture of a workplace or an organization shares the qualities of any human group. Among a great many other things it does, culture describes what’s acceptable and expected in the organization, who has formal power, who has informal power, how we do things around here, and what language we use to describe our work and communicate with each other. Culture defines which contributions matter and what they’re worth in terms of reward. It outlines how conflict will be handled and what resolution looks like. It even covers aspects of behaviour as basic as dress and tone of voice and what kind of coffee ends up in the break room (as well as who makes it). 

Across the countless individual workplace cultures, there is also a basic understanding about healing and helping professions and vocations that serve human needs. Sometimes we call this culture of service. This understanding has been influenced by religious ideas, political and economic structures, educational agendas, and the changing demands of our humanity. 

Many of the assumptions that underlie the idea of a culture of service deserve a review and reboot. As I’ve mentioned earlier in this book, we often equate service with sacrifice. Being “selfless” has been touted as an indicator of pure intention and noble character. Guided by this basic image of altruism and other-focused self-sacrificial generosity, our society has drawn a simplified image of what happens in a vocation of service: a person who has something gives it to someone who lacks it—an act that declares and demonstrates a greater interest in others than in oneself. 

Even if we disagree with such ideas about service, we can’t blame anybody else for the creation of these cultural assumptions. We are each involved in creating and perpetuating culture, even if we feel mired in it without a choice. Culture is created through the active, albeit often subconscious, participation of everybody it encompasses. 

Must we stay stuck in this old paradigm of sacrifice, lack, and dysfunction? Must we unreasonably and unsustainably elevate those who provide service and unfairly and inhumanely denigrate those who receive it? Are we able to shift into a new paradigm that holds the promise of creativity, fulfillment, and quality? The service culture I want to promote and enjoy—as a provider and as a recipient is characterized by transformation, connection, contribution, reciprocity, growth, and joy. 

When we talk about organizational culture, it can be easy to think in terms of what seems impossible to affect or influence. Culture feels so big and enduring that it seems like individual actors have no power to make change. We are, of course, influenced and shaped by the cultures that we are involved in. But we are also influencers in these human systems. To think of culture as an entity that exists beyond us is to deny our inherent role in creating it, keeping it going, and changing it when it has outlived its usefulness. 

Just look at how we rallied to respond to the immediate needs that emanated at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. If we have learned anything in this season of challenge and change, it’s that we have the capacity to respond and shift culturally when it’s a matter of life and death. 

I’d like to think we can do it with much less pressure. 

Ideally, we are nurturing organizational and community cultures that allow us to not only survive threats like pandemics, but also meet all kinds of challenges and thrive while we do it. 

The fear of trying new things is often met with the old adage, “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” Cultural changemakers will, instead, say, “That was then and this is now. Things have shifted, and what was not feasible then might now be the perfect solution.” 

Don’t get stuck in thinking that culture is just the way it is. It’s not. It is mutable and malleable, and we have the collective power to mold it. 

Elizabeth Bishop. Author of Conscious Service: Ten Ways to Reclaim your Calling, Move beyond Burnout, and Make a Difference without Sacrificing Yourself (Hazelden Publishing, Publication Date: April 2022). Professor, Confederation College

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