What Culture Decks Are and Why All Your Student Orgs Should be Making Them

Peter Drucker, who was an organizational leadership consultant, famously said “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

This sentiment acknowledges the power that culture has in helping an organization achieve its goals. Student leaders can strategize all they want, but if the culture of their student organization isn’t synchronized with their stated mission, vision, and values, members will be unlikely to stay engaged.

Dismantling Racism defines culture in this way:

“A culture is a way of life of a group of people — the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

One way for student leaders to actively shape a positive culture within their organizations is by creating a culture deck. A culture deck (sometimes referred to as a culture code) is a presentation or document that explains an organization’s culture in simple terms.

A culture deck can have many uses for a student organization. It can serve as a recruitment tool by providing a preview of the inner workings of an organization to potential members. It could be an onboarding document that new members review in order to integrate into the community more quickly. Additionally, the process of creating a culture deck tends to illuminate the aspects of the current culture that do not live up to student leaders’ aspirations.

I’m going to outline the sections of a culture deck that are applicable to student leaders. This is just a guide; students don’t need to include every section that I mention here. They must decide how best to explain their organization’s culture to potential members.

Try not to overload the culture deck with too much information; students can always direct people to review the organization’s constitution or bylaws for more “in the weeds” details.

The culture deck could be created during an organization’s retreat or by writing each section, one at a time, over the course of a semester. 

Before embarking on this process, the following resources would be useful for student leaders and their advisors to review:


Why the organization exists, as outlined in its mission statement, is one of the first things that students who are interested in joining the organization will want to know.

Since the mission statement will lay the foundation for the rest of the culture deck, it should be placed near the beginning of the document.

A mission statement makes clear what the organization is trying to achieve. After reviewing it, the reader should understand what problem the organization is trying to solve or what unmet need it aims to fulfill.

My post 8 Tips for Helping Students Create and Register New Students Orgs provides additional strategies for crafting a student organization’s mission, vision, and values.


The organization’s vision statement should be included right after the mission statement section in the culture deck.

A vision statement should give readers a clear idea of how the organization’s activities help it achieve its goals. Ideally, the reader will be able to articulate how they, as an individual member, can contribute to the vision.


After the mission and vision statements, there should be a section on organizational values.

These three-to-five values will give readers a clearer idea of how members are expected to interact with one another and how the organization’s leaders make decisions.

One way to illustrate the organization’s values in the culture deck is to describe what each of the values would look like and sound like in practice.

For example, if collaboration is a core value of the organization, the culture deck might say:

  • Collaboration looks like: Our organization providing backstage access to the campus newspaper so that they can write about our concert series.
  • Collaboration sounds like: “Let’s set up an online document for committee members to share ideas.”


One sign of truly belonging to a culture is understanding the language the group uses. So, any acronyms or terminology that is specific to the organization should be explained in a lexicon section of your culture deck.

If the organization has a mascot, for example, explain the history and inspiration behind the mascot’s name and appearance. If the organization holds the same traditional events each year, the lexicon section could introduce the reader to those. It might also be enlightening to write about any awards that the organization gives out to its members or the acronyms of organizations that the group often collaborates with.

Organizational Structure

To understand an organization’s culture, you need to understand who its decision-makers are.

A culture deck can provide a description of the positions on the executive board and their role within the organization. Since board membership changes every year, providing biographies in the culture deck of the current position holders is optional.

If the organization has committees, explain those in this section. You can stick to simple, brief descriptions of what each committee does or delve into the details of how to join each committee.

The Member Experience

When students are interested in joining an organization, they will likely ask what activities it hosts.

The key to writing this section of the culture deck is answering the top question that potential members are actually wondering: What types of experiences can I have with this organization?

Instead of student leaders asking themselves “what activities will we do at meetings?” or “what events will our organization host?”, they can instead ask “what experiences do we want our members to have?”

If the student leaders want to focus on the social aspect of joining the organization, they might have a slide in this section that talks about their potluck dinners, off-campus recreation trips, or similar social activities. If they want to focus on skill-building experiences, this section might list the skills that members can expect to gain from volunteering at events or taking part in club-sponsored workshops.

One way that student leaders can articulate what type of experiences they want members to have is by identifying how they want members to feel.

Check out the Emotional Culture Deck. It’s a downloadable toolkit in the form of a card game, which works by sorting emotions into four categories:

  • It’s important our people feel this
  • Our success relies on our people feeling this
  • It’s important our people don’t feel this
  • We absolutely don’t want our people to feel this

After student leaders identify what they do and don’t want their members to feel, they can design experiences that elicit those emotions.

For example, if they want members to feel appreciated, then weekly kudos sessions or end-of-semester awards ceremonies might be wise experiences for student leaders to offer. If they want their members to feel brave, then student leaders should consider what community agreements encourage bravery and how to provide opportunities to be in a brave space.

Community Agreements

How a community explains its behavioral expectations to incoming members can either contribute to or hinder each member’s sense of belonging. Community agreements provide a written explanation of how people in the community want to interact with each other. 

To understand community agreements, we should delineate them from norms and rules.

  • Agreements are an aspiration, or collective vision, for how we want to be in relationship with one another. They are explicitly developed and enforced by the group, not by an external authority, and as such must represent a consensus.
  • Norms are the ways in which we behave and are currently in relationship to each other, whether consciously and explicitly or not.
  • Rules are mandated and enforced by an authority and do not necessarily reflect the will or buy-in of the group.

So, a good way to shape a positive organizational culture is by explicitly stating community agreements, not just the rules that are outlined in the organization’s constitution.

By publishing the expectations that members of the community have for each other, the organization is clearly demonstrating what they value and what type of culture they want to develop or maintain.

Here are some examples of what might be included in this section:

  • Mantras for meetings, such as “bring your best self” or “do the work in the meeting”
  • The expectation that members be active bystanders if they witness bullying or other problems within the organization
  • The expectation that academics be prioritized above commitments to the organization
  • Available options for solving conflicts between members 
  • What types of decisions are made as a group and when members are empowered to make decisions on their own

Organizational culture is notoriously hard to define and changes constantly, but student leaders have the opportunity to visualize the culture that they want to develop by creating a culture deck.

gif of Heidi Klum saying 'yes let's get it started'

As an advisor, you should check in on a regular basis with the executive board member who is responsible for seeing this project through to completion. Find out if the group needs clarification on how to create a specific section or wants to discuss drafts of the deck with you.

What questions do you still have about culture decks? Connect with us on Twitter @themoderncampus and @JustinTerlisner.

Justin Terlisner

About the author: Justin Terlisner (he/him) is a student affairs professional who focuses on helping students thrive through dynamic leadership education and inclusive supervision practices. When not writing curriculum or working with students, you’ll find him enjoying a book, hiking or baking. Learn how we can help get your students involved.