At Exponent Partners, we’re relentless in our pursuit of positive progressive social change. Our team of expert strategists, system architects, and information system specialists are on a mission to make nonprofits radically better at driving social impact. In order to achieve this mission, we recognize that our own internal culture needs to be purposefully designed and fiercely aligned with our work, our values, and our vision. To achieve this goal, Exponent Partners embarked on a Culture Code journey in 2023, and, in doing so we attempted to distill our organization’s core values and aspirations into a living, breathing document that our organization can use to guide our behaviors, decisions, and actions. We wanted to take this opportunity to share more about this journey and process, our discoveries, and the resulting Culture Stack that has taken shape.
What is a Culture Code?
A Culture Code is a compass that guides organizations toward their aspirations and ideals. It’s a living document that narrates who we are and how we navigate through the world together. It is there to help hold us accountable for the behaviors and actions that support the culture we all shape together. Culture is not accidental, it is intentional, it takes focus and alignment- and most importantly it takes everyone understanding what behaviors and actions are acceptable and celebrated and those that will not be tolerated.
From May 2023, through August 2023, Exponent Partners team members engaged in monthly Culture Code workshops facilitated by Hella Social Impact founding members Lynn Johnson and Stefania Pomponi. The partnership between Exponent Partners and Hella Social Impact first began in 2021, when our team members joined a cohort of other BCorp organizations in a six-week racial justice training program. It was in this training that we saw firsthand the amazing work that Hella Social Impact does. Hella Social Impact works to support leaders at all levels of an organization and empower them with the skills, tools, connections, and knowledge to make transformative cultural change. As a mission-driven organization that works to center marginalized voices, we knew having Hella Social Impact facilitate and guide the Culture Code process would ensure a lens of inclusion and equity.
It was also in this 2021 training program that Exponent Partners met another like-minded BCorp organization that would eventually be our partner on this Culture Code journey, JB Media. JB Media, while they do very different work from Exponent Partners, is similarly focused on client value and positive social impact. Their values of relationships, balance, learning, impact, and clients resonated with our own values around learning, diversity, impact, and innovation. We embarked on this Culture Code journey together, to learn together and hold each other accountable in this work. It was also a great opportunity to come together with another BCorp and create a community focused on developing an inclusive Culture Code. And it allowed for more divergent thinking, combining the two organizations offered a unique opportunity to encourage new and different viewpoints and ideas.
Our Culture Code Experience
Our Exponent Partners Culture Code team consisted of executive team members, leaders, and individual contributors who joined a team of JB Media executives and leaders on a monthly virtual workshop call. These Culture Code workshops involved evaluating our vision, mission, and values with a lens of racial equity. It was important to center radical inclusion in our culture work and humanity in our process. One of Exponent Partners’ core values is diversity, and we understand that the work required to ensure diversity, inclusion, and equity is woven throughout the tapestry of our organization is continuous and challenging. It was crucial that this commitment be reflected in our Culture Code.
Hella Social Impact helped both Exponent Partners and JB Media notice and name when dominant culture was evident in our current organizations so that we could dismantle structural racism and white supremacy culture. While some of the monthly sessions were dedicated to learning more about ourselves and each other, an important part of this type of work, a lot of our time together was also spent reviewing our mission, vision, and values and learning how to craft a clear, actionable, and inclusive Culture Code.
We knew that our culture code should speak plainly, it should be easy to understand and remember, and we wanted it to be action-oriented and measurable. After some conversations and brainstorming, and lots of revisioning, we landed on our “Culture Stack.” Like a tech stack, our Culture Stack is a combination and collection of expectations, norms, and behaviors that together build an intentionally inclusive Exponent Partners culture.
Takeaways & Future Plans
Some of the most fruitful conversations in this work came when we started to discuss current culture and aspirational culture. We discussed how we wanted to maintain our focus on high-impact results and client-centricity that currently shows up in who we are and how we operate together, and still, we wanted to work on being more agile, empowered, resilient, collaborative, courageous, and fun. We knew we wanted to create a Culture Code that celebrated and encouraged those attributes.
As a full group, there were also moments in our monthly workshops when we were asked to be vulnerable, share personal stories, and step into some uncomfortable conversations. The respect that both teams showed during these conversations, facilitated beautifully by our guides, was encouraging. That learning and self-reflection were really important to this work because they reminded us how critical psychological safety, and creating safe spaces, are to maintaining an inclusive culture. Our Exponent Partners’ team was struck by how similar our values and approach were to our partner in this journey, JB Media. We also found good aspects of our values reflected back to us and we were challenged to articulate ourselves in certain areas more clearly and with specificity.
We were grateful for Hella Social Impact’s focus on systems, on dismantling those systems inherently based on perpetuating privilege or discrimination. And of course, their commitment to building or rebuilding equitable systems. Because Exponent Partners is also in the business of improving systems, the focus on designing better systems based on the outcomes we want to see has a pleasing symmetry.
At our August 2023, all-company meeting Exponent Partners shared this Culture Stack language with the full organization and discussed our Culture Code journey. We walked through a specific example of our Background Check policy and how this policy can be viewed through our Culture Stack. While a majority of US companies conduct background checks on new hires, Exponent Partners runs background checks only for certain roles and when specifically required by clients, but not for all positions for many reasons. For one, the use of background checks and prohibitions against hiring individuals with criminal records may, under certain circumstances, constitute race discrimination. As a result of the racial disparities embedded within our expansive criminal justice system, employers that refuse to hire applicants with criminal records are likely rejecting a disproportionate number of Black, Indigenous, and non-Black People of Color.
We emphasized to our staff that our Culture Code isn’t just a set of words; it’s a guiding compass that will shape how we operate, how we treat one another, and how we engage with the world. It represents our shared values and the legacy we aspire to leave.
In conclusion, Exponent Partners’ journey to develop a Culture Code is a testament to our unwavering commitment to positive, progressive social change. Our dedication to making nonprofits more effective in driving social impact goes hand in hand with the understanding that an inclusive internal culture is essential to achieving our mission. The collaborative effort with Hella Social Impact and JB Media, with a strong focus on racial equity, has allowed us to craft a living, actionable, and measurable Culture Stack that is intentionally inclusive and purposefully designed.
The resulting Culture Stack is not just a document but a guiding compass that will shape how Exponent Partners operates. It represents our shared values and the legacy they aspire to leave, ensuring that our commitment to diversity, learning, impact, and innovation is woven into the fabric of our organization. As we move forward, Exponent Partners plans to use this Culture Stack as a barometer to align our internal practices and policies, further solidifying our dedication to radical inclusion and social impact.
If you are inspired by our mission and want to be part of our journey towards radical inclusion and positive social impact, we encourage you to explore the opportunities to join the Exponent Partners team. Check out this page to learn more about our current openings and how you can contribute to our vision. Stay connected with us as we continue to share our insights and experiences on our path to making a difference.