How to assess culture

The purpose of grant assessments is to determine the quality and eligibility of a proposal. It is these judgments that help a funder decide how best to allocate their resources. Reviewing the application form and supporting documents such as annual accounts, business plans and policies, gives an assessor one picture of the organisation. Phone calls or visits can then explore what is being put into practice, because, for example, it is one thing to have a safeguarding policy, and quite another to explain how it is applied on the ground. On top of this, some of the other cultural factors like ethos and values are harder to assess. But if, as they say, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” then it is worth assessing culture as an important factor of a successful organisation. So how do we assess this?

There are some helpful approaches on hand:

1.  The Governance Institute, icsa, produced a report in May 2017: Cultural Markets: assessing, measuring and improving culture in the charitable sector. It identifies a number of behaviours and characteristics indicating a poor culture including:

·         Staff turnover

·         Whistleblowing incidents

·         Board attendance

·         A dominant leader

And suggests questions to ask such as:

·         How frequently is organisational culture discussed as part of the formal board agenda?

·         Is there an agreed code of conduct in place that helps to build the desired culture of the organisation?

·         How are incidents of inappropriate behaviours recorded, monitored and dealt with?

It is a useful resource for both assessors and organisations.

2.  There are commercial products available such as the Cultural Values Assessment Tool from Barrett Values Centre. This provides a diagnostic tool to determine an organisation’s culture. Interestingly, it includes a measure of cultural entropy, which is the amount of energy in a group that is consumed in unproductive work. This should be of interest to any Board looking to maximise precious resources. The tool involves a staff survey, so it is not something a funder can do, but it would be worth asking the charity if they have used this or similar tools.

3.  There is also the idea of taking a ‘Culture Walk’. This is a way to look at your organisation afresh and notice cultural signs. Although I do not use this specific name for it, this is something that assessors frequently do on site visits. It is not dissimilar to the sort of thing we all do when choosing a school or a flat and want to get a feel for a place. In a charity visit, it includes noticing:

·         How much space is given to whom?

·         What is posted on bulletin boards and walls?

·         How are common areas used?

And I would add: how are you welcomed into the building? Is the signage clear? How is any signing-in procedure handled?

There is always a debate about how much grant assessing is, or should be, an art or a science. Judgments are always being made about an organisation’s culture. Making these a more explicit part of the assessment process should help ensure that any judgments are open and fair.


Emma will be delivering training in grant assessment for ACF on 21st March, 25th September and 13th December 2018. More details here