How to Change Mindsets and Shape Cultures

How to Change Mindsets and Shape Cultures

Reading Time: 10 minutes

If there is one skill that I would label as a “core skill” for Volunteer Partnerships Practitioners (or Volunteer Programme Managers), it would be the skill of changing mindsets and shaping cultures.


It’s an Insider Job Too

You see, despite the potential of the volunteer programme to resource non-profits and multiply resources, most people still do not fully understand the work of a Volunteer Partnerships Practitioner. As such, other than trying to employ all their skills and ability to try to market externally; to “help” prospective volunteers see why they should volunteer at their organization, the practitioners will often also find themselves in the position to also do some market internally.


The Many Parts of Effective Volunteer Partnerships Equation

Especially in organizations where the volunteer programme is relatively less established, you, as your organization’s Volunteer Partnerships Practitioner, will have to first help management and fellow workers understand how volunteers can value-add to the cause and work of the organization. Following that, you will have to then help them understand your role in facilitating this as well as the “proper way” of getting things done. It would be disastrous if there is an appreciation of the value-add of the volunteer programme but this is not accompanied by an effective understanding of the role of the Volunteer Partnerships Practitioner and the presence of a properly designed Volunteer Partnerships process. If this is the case (since everything related to volunteer programme management would fall into the practitioner’s lap), what would usually ensue is the inevitable burnout of the well-meaning practitioner as he/she works tirelessly to pull all the stops for the volunteer programme to work.


The Strategic Need for Internal Marketing

Here is where the skill of changing mindsets and shaping cultures will come in handy. Practitioners need to help everyone in the organization understand that everyone has a part to play in effectively harnessing the potentials of effective volunteer partnerships. They need to understand and respect your role as well as work alongside you, in line with properly designed work processes.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines culture as “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization“. Volunteer Partnerships Practitioners are usually the first to be able to capture the vision of how effective volunteer partnerships can multiply resources and resource the cause and work of the organization.  It is with this in mind that I thus say that you have the important task of starting to change mindsets and shape organizational cultures to facilitate just that; changing organizational attitudes, values, goals and sustaining effective volunteer partnerships practices.


Cultures can be Changed

And even though cultures are stable, it is still possible for you to influence and shape them over time. Think about the coffee culture in Singapore. It may not have been that long ago that coffee may have cost us a little less than a dollar and we can get them from the local coffee shops. We could then choose to drink them from ceramic cups and saucers in the coffee shops or have them “to go” as we sip them from tin cans (or “kongs”). But look at how sophisticated the coffee and cafe culture has developed over the last few years; you can now enjoy your cuppa with a variety of brews and themed environments to choose from. And if you like it, you can also support your favourite cafe chain by buying and drinking from one of their specially designed coffee tumblers.


8 Tips to Change Mindsets and Shape Cultures

Here are 8 tips that I have found to be useful in helping me to change mindsets and shape organizational culture from the “bottom-up”, as I pave the way for effective volunteer partnerships. You can also click on the infographic to download it.

#1 Walk the Talk, Show & Tell

Nothing sabotages us more than when we go around raving about the potential of volunteers but do not ourselves engage them. After all, as Volunteer Partnerships Practitioners, we are supposed to be domain experts in engaging volunteers. So with our scope of work being so dynamic and challenging at times, what stops us from engaging volunteers ourselves to support the work we do? When we do “walk the talk” and engage volunteers successfully, we send a powerful message of the belief in the power of volunteers.

In my previous portfolios, I had intentionally engaged volunteers on high profile projects as a way to “walk the talk” and “show and tell” others the possibilities in volunteer partnerships. I partnered with volunteers to develop database solutions to automate organization-wide processes, to provide legal and research advice as well as create commercial-quality video advertisements to publicize the work of the organization. All these served to help people to start thinking and imagining how they can themselves partner volunteers to resource the work they do.


#2 It’s All About “Guan Xi” (关系,”Relationship” in Chinese) 

Genuine relationships are a real game-changer. It is crucial here that we understand who our main stakeholders are and we go on from here to engage them. I have come to learn the valuable lesson about “Guan Xi” from the last two organizations I was in. Prior to joining my previous organization as a Volunteer Partnerships Practitioner, I worked as an HQ Volunteer Manager in another multiservice charity. Despite having worked at this multiservice charity for close to a decade, I have come to realise that the level of change I was able to effect in the latter organization, where I stayed for just over 3 years, was far greater than the former organization.

One of the differences which could explain the disparity is that of relationships. In the former organization, I saw what needed to change and I initiated these changes from the Headquarters, hoping that people will catch the spirit and jump on the bandwagon of change. Needless to say, I met with resistance because people saw me as some “remote HQ guy” issuing the change; though they may understand the rationale for the change, they were not able to relate to the change at a deeper level.

This was in sharp contrast to the latter organization where relationships were allowed to take its course to be developed before any change was introduced. When I joined the latter organization, instead of being “parachuted” in as the subject matter expert in volunteer partnerships and making sweeping changes for the good of the organization, the management was very intentional in helping me gain visibility on the ground. Over the first 4 months in my role, I sat in various centres and had the opportunity to work alongside the different ground staff, to get to know them, build rapport with them and work the ground with them. I was also given the opportunity to observe how they worked, distil the good practices and identify the areas of growth needed. Needless to say that when the time came for the necessary changes to be made to grow the volunteer programme, I met with lesser resistance as compared with the former organization I was in. People were able to relate better to the change as they are now able to put a face to who was it that was effecting the change.


#3 Be on their Side

At a deeper level of building rapport is the need to also help ground staff recognize that you are “on their side”. This is where careful listening and understanding their pain points will help you to begin to change mindsets and shape cultures. You need to be a wordsmith here to communicate that you understand them and are on their side using the right words and language. Start by thinking about their pain points and review how effective volunteer partnerships could create value for them and help them. The keyword here is “value”.

For example, in trying to launch a new volunteer management system to the whole organization, I knew that I would inevitably meet with resistance. And even though many of the staff would acknowledge that the old way of doing things with “pen and paper” is not effective, most people may still resist the new system because it may mean they have to live out of their comfort zone and do things differently; it may mean they have to live with uncertainty because this, unlike the “pen and paper” method may not be the tried and tested way; it may mean additional work to make this system work. The alternative of trying this new way is just too daunting.

And so, in anticipating the resistance, I called together all the ground staff for an “equipping” session on how to best use the system to help them. As an opening activity to the session, I got every one of them to list down their current pain points on post-its and we discussed each point thereafter. With everyone on the same page about the pain points we were up against, I then “launched” into my pitch to show that I was “on their side” and demonstrated the value of the new system. Taking each post-it, I began to identify the pain points that the system will help to address. By the end of the activity, the excitement level of the ground staff increased, as I began to share with them the technical know-how on making it work for them.

With that being said, we need to be careful about “sugar-coating” the solutions we bring because there are rarely perfect solutions. As such, show them that you see their pain points, show them how volunteer partnerships could possibly help address it, while at the same time acknowledging how you are aware that could be teething issues in the process and reassure them that you will journey with them to make it work. People need to know that you are on their side and that you are in this together with them.


#4 Educate them

Being the person who sees the potential of effective volunteer partnerships, you will need to continue to educate others so they can catch the same vision. You can help them put things into perspective by sharing articles, research and newspaper clippings, by dialoguing with them, by writing articles or even conducting “equipping” or sharing sessions. This is also one of the reasons I love dialoguing, mentoring and training on the topic of strategic volunteer partnerships; it affords me the opportunity to share my perspectives, shape others’ perspectives and begin to build others’ capability to effectively partner volunteers.


#5 Find Your Champions

The journey of changing mindsets and shaping cultures could be a lonely one and without people to journey alongside you, you may lose hope along the way, especially if the journey is a long drawn one. Seek out people who share your vision and grow them into your champions to “pass on the vision” to others. It is a “divide-and-conquer” strategy that will rarely fail.

In a former role as a Volunteer Partnerships Practitioner, I was able to identify champions and formed my Volunteer Development & Partnerships Workgroup. Although the workgroup was initially formed for functional purposes, I soon realised how having people to journey alongside me was crucial; they helped me champion the case for effective volunteer partnerships in my organization, processed through with me each roadblock we met, kept me on track and nudged me along when I, at times, felt discouraged.


#6 Help People Succeed

People need handles to be effective in volunteer partnerships. This could also explain why people sometimes resist change or give up trying midway because they lack the know-how to help them be successful. Without the handles, it could simply mean more work and more pain for them. Help them to avoid and overcome challenges by equipping them for success.

In helping volunteers to be effective, my team and I sat down to brainstorm the potential roadblocks that would keep them from being effective. Once we identified these, we then developed resource kits and training to help them either avoid or overcome these challenges. Similarly, in every project I was involved in, whether it is implementing a new volunteer management database system or implementing changes to volunteer management practices, I would always analyse the success factors and then proceed to equip the people for success through preparation and tweaked processes.


#7 Pilot It!

Starting with your champions, pilot test the changes you are going to effect. The advantage of pilot testing is that it provides you with the opportunity to validate your solution and then to tweak it for greater success. A successful pilot would also help you nurture more champions who will “rave” about the proposed change you are going to effect. This had been the case for all my change projects in the volunteer programme.


#8 Persevere 

I could not emphasize more on the need to persist because the work of volunteer partnerships is both dynamic and challenging at times. Though I had encountered thoughts of giving up many times along my journey of being a Volunteer Partnerships Practitioner, I am glad I have not indeed given up because this meaningful journey has developed me both personally and professionally and it has allowed me to see how effective volunteer partnerships can resource and multiply the good that non-profits work for.


Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Share your tips for changing mindsets and shaping culture with us too.

Share the article and infographics with those who might be blessed by it.


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How to Change Mindsets and Shape Cultures

by James Lim
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