Why organizational values are so awesome and sexy


red-squirrel-570936_960_720Hi everyone. Before I delve into today’s topic, I’m going to ask for donations to my organization. Seattle has a day called GiveBig, hosted by The Seattle Foundation. Donate on May 3rd (not before or after) and the money gets a share of a stretch fund. If you like the rantings on NWB, and especially if you are a foundation or major donor, consider giving to RVC on May 3rd (you can go there and pledge to give before May 3rd). We’re trying to raise 10K; 100% of this money will pay for rent and utilities*. As an Executive Director, I freak out a lot about fundraising and being able to pay for rent and utilities. A lot. It basically accounts for 80% of my daily night terrors. The less I freak out about fundraising, the more time I can focus on thinking and writing about important stuff, like Trickle-Down Community Engagement, or the rules of dating in the nonprofit sector.

Today, I want to talk about Values. Values have been like the middle children of the nonprofit sector, wedged between the older brother Vision and the me-me-me baby of the family, Mission, whom everyone has to pay attention to all the time. Or maybe Mission is the bossy older brother, and Vision is the baby. Or maybe Mission is like the mom who makes us eat our vegetables, and Vision is like that cool but aloof cousin.

Whatever. (It’s midnight, and I have a newborn. And in fact, I am at the airport). Point is, few of us pay much attention to Values. Values are the platonic friend who has a crush on us but whom we constantly take for granted while we chase after hotter people. We scatter a few inspiring-sounding words on our website—Equity! Respect! Compassion! Community! Accountability!—and call it a day. A few of us elaborate on our core values with vague sentences like “Respect: We treat everyone with respect.”

But it is time for us all to realize how vital, smart, and sexy Values are.

I was one of those people who took values for granted. Per standard practice, I threw a bunch of words on my last org’s website—“Service! Responsiveness! Fun!”—and moved on to more important things, like figuring out how to secure free cakes for the gala. It took a mentor, Tim, who strongly recommended selecting and spelling out core values as an essential prerequisite before a strategic planning process, before I came around. Now, I cannot imagine any other way to run an organization except to base it on a set of core values. I am not an expert in this area, but from my perspective, especially in these past two years, here are a few reasons why core values are so awesome, and so powerful:

They help us build a kickass team: While most people in our sector are awesome, they are each awesome in different ways, because everyone holds a different set of values. Values, then, can serve as an important factor determining who we should bring on to the team and, as critically, who may need to go. I’ve made some terrible hires in my career, and thinking back on them, it is rarely because the new team members didn’t have the skills. Often it was simply the fact that we never had the alignment of values in the first place, probably because we never prioritized them high enough to figure how they would factor in the hiring and orientation process.

They help us build a kickass organization: Clear, defined core values help shape everyone’s behavior. That sounds terrifying, but it’s actually a key ingredient in a happy, functioning, and respected organization. One of RVC’s values, for example, is Community, and we have a set of behaviors defined around it. One of these behaviors is that everyone who is in the office will stop to greet and say hi to any visitor who comes in, even for a few seconds. This tiny, simple behavior has greatly affected our organization and how it’s perceived by volunteers and community members. We are definitely not perfect, but people know that if they come into the RVC office, they’ll get a warm welcome and never made to feel like they’re intruding.

They help us resolve conflicts: A huge portion of conflicts is caused by clashes in values. For example, if my value is environmental protection, and yours is rat-1031859_960_720expediency, this may explain why I have the urge to fly across the room and strangle you if you don’t format your printouts right and end up with a single sentence on the last page. Having clearly defined and agreed-to values help prevent conflicts from forming in the first place, and to resolve them when they arise. One of RVC’s values, under Integrity, is “We communicate our needs and expectations openly, and do not get angry at others’ failures to fulfill expectations we never clearly set.” This has helped out significantly, since it seems 75% of conflicts are about people forgetting to communicate their expectations and then getting mad at other people for not being mind-readers (See “10 agreements for a happy and well-functioning team, aka how to not suck as a coworker“)

They help us with strategic directions: Values, when used right, are our beacon in the sea of darkness. Countless times this year, in heated discussions about our goals and how to get there, we relied on our core values to guide us. When we selected host sites, for example, RVC has a choice between working with larger organizations that would potentially be easier to work with and possibly pay a larger portion of our fellows’ wages. Or we could focus on smaller, grassroots organizations; unfortunately, these organizations have fewer resources. Our value of Equity helped guide us toward working specifically with grassroots, POC-led organizations less than $500K in budget size. It guides our development strategies and our message to funders and donors. We know that working with smaller organizations will be more challenging (at first), but we are a capacity-building organization focused on Equity, and our strategies must be guided by this and other values.

Tips for using Core Values

My board and staff spent the past several months developing a list of five core values and the team agreements associated with each one. Many of these behaviors came at great costs to the organizations, results of lessons learned from terrible experiences, some of which were due to my own leadership failures for not institutionalizing our values. For example, RVC is a communities-of-color-led organization. This is clearly in our mission and vision. But we never spelled it out in our values about what that looked like. It led to tension and confusion, especially our white team members and volunteers, who often wonder what their role is. It came to a boil when leaders of color wanted to meet without white allies present, a significant reason being that there was tension between diverse groups of color, and there was a request to address those challenges without having to simultaneously handle the white/POC dynamics. Now our values statement includes respecting that leaders of color at RVC may need to meet from time to time without white allies being present. We orient all incoming volunteers, staff, board members, and, if necessary, funders and donors in this, and this sort of orientation has been very helpful at preventing challenges and hurt feelings later.

After several months of discussion, here is RVC’s list of Values (it may change as we evolve). Use this as example of a list your org can have. If you decide to define and operationalize your values, and I recommend you do if you haven’t done so already—it is worth all the time you put into it, and more—here are some tips:

Take time to do it right and get buy-in: Do not rush to define your values. You risk having a great set of words that no one will buy into and thus implement. If you are not experienced in guiding values discussions, hire outside help. It will take time, possibly a retreat and a few work sessions, before your organization has a strong values statement. Do not rush; the process in setting values is just as critical as the values themselves.  

Distill values into observable behavior: Don’t be wishy-washy or esoteric with your values. Spell them out in human-being language, with behaviors that are easy to understand and carry out. Respect, for example, can mean so many different things to so many different people. “We respect everyone” doesn’t mean anything unless you spell out specific behaviors.

Don’t make it too complicated: To me, Respect may be best demonstrated by people washing their dishes instead of leaving them in the sink. Integrity may just mean you do the crap you say you’re going to do and admit when you make mistakes. Don’t complicate things. “We do the crap we say we’re going to do” is way more useful than something like “We believe in the holistic growth of every human being to stand in their own truth and synergize to shift paradigms” or whatever. Make it work for your organization instead of what sounds good or what people would like to hear.

Keep it visible at in everyone’s mind: Once you have your list of values, print it out, put it up on walls, have handouts for every meeting. Talk about the values all the time. At my org’s weekly team meetings, we save a few minutes on the agenda to discuss how we’ve seen our values being expressed in the past week and to share appreciation of one another based on the values we see in action.

Use it for everything: Your values are completely useless if they are only a list on your website. Find a way to integrate them into everything. Actually, find a way to base everything on them. When you hire people, make sure candidates know your values and expectations around them. When you do performance evaluations, make sure you discuss organizational values. When you collaborate with other organizations, make sure you discuss and see if your values align.  

Discuss and adapt: Your core values may not change often, but I find that specific behaviors under each value may change. That’s OK. In fact, it’s perfectly normal and even good for the organization to constantly evaluate behaviors and change them as appropriate. As new team members and leaders come along, values may sometimes change to incorporate their perspectives. This helps with ownership, which is very important. Your board and staff may want to figure out which values/behaviors are non-negotiable, though, and use those to guide who you bring into the organization.

I hope that’s helpful. It’s time for us as a sector to move Values out of the Friend Zone.


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  • Jennifer Laurie

    Bang on especially re expectations. I always say it is impossible to meet an unexpressed expectation! 😉

  • You left out one additional thing that values are good for. They’re good for figuring out who your ideal donors are. If you’re cultivating donors who fail to share your organizational values you’re usually barking up the wrong tree. PS, shameless plug, I’m doing a webinar on this very topic for Bloomerang on May 4, called “Are You Good Enough for Me?” which is all about applying values to your criteria for qualifying prospective funders. If you understand your organizational values, then you also understand the strengths or competitive advantage your nonprofit brings to its constituents. Donors who aren’t interested in those strengths and values will be far more difficult for you to acquire and retain.

  • Anyone who’s going through a value-defining process would do well to review and model Possible’s For-Impact Culture Code: http://possiblehealth.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Possible-Culture-Code1.pdf

    I’m a donor and long-time admirer of and donor to Possible, and this code is exactly why: a perfect marriage of mission, vision, values, operations, and everything in between.

    • Jim J.

      Thanks for sharing R. E.!

    • DebbieDisco

      Wow! So powerful and beautiful and inspiring… I have to learn more about “For-Impact”!

  • Mehitabel

    I am a fan of organizational values in theory, and would love to be a fan in practice as well, but I’ve seen enough misuse to be very gun-shy. I’ve had a fair amount of experience in organizations that adopt their values from a list on some business-theory website, roll them out to the staff and stakeholders, and then never pay any attention to them again, except at performance review time when everyone on staff is expected to write essays about how they put the organizational values into practice – and get downrated for anything less than perfection – which can lead to the staff starting to think that the values are just BS. And it goes downhill from there. Adopting organizational values is one of those things that can backfire big time if it’s just given lip service by leadership and used as a reason to criticize job performance. If you’re going to do it, leadership has to go all in and walk the talk. cynicism

  • MBU’town

    I like the idea of having the values spelled out for new hires. A few years ago I was part of an organization who made a few new hires who had no grasp of the values of the organization. When a great grant opportunity rolled out to put our values and mission into real and practical practice they revolted (not hyperbolic). The result was catastrophic for the organization. They have lost significant revenue in donations and sponsorships because they rejected many of the core tenants of the mission for a few years. They’re trying to recover, but we all know how long that road can be.

  • Kris

    Vu, how about a post on how to have great team meetings and staff meetings? I really admire what you describe above with your weekly values check-in. What’s some other cool stuff that you all do?

  • Irene Rabinowitz

    I worked for an organization with two amazing co-workers. Our boss (who lives in a different country) initiated a values discussion in a weekly staff meeting in which we all participated. We agreed upon the core values (community and respect were two of them; the other was specific to our target audience). Within a month, we had all been relieved of our jobs and because we remained friends (still a team, in a way), we learned that our leader had made negative comments about each of us to the others. If a leader is taking on a core values discussion, the first rule of the game needs to be that the leader is not using it for the purpose of manipulation. I have participated in core values discussions and it can work brilliantly when everyone honors the values and includes those values in their day to day work. Great article, Vu.

  • I may be wrong but wouldn’t it be better to include everyone in POC? White is a color as well. I would feel discriminated against if I wasn’t included in a meeting because I was white just like they would if they weren’t being included because for example they were black. I don’t know I’d rather have true diversity race, religion, skills, etc.. than have separate meetings. We need to learn to work together or we will never move forward. Every voice needs to be heard…but that’s just my thoughts.

    Great article posting! We’ve been working on our values at the organization I work for during our strategic planning and this is a great posting to share with the group. Thank you.

  • Nathan Tarbet

    Organizational values are super important to establish early on, and I’m glad that you were able to touch on that. By making a clear, recorded effort to provide a “code” of operation is really important, because it helps with consistency of messaging. Over the years, personal and public values will change, but by defining how and why the organization is opperating will allow for your messaging to follow a similar tone throughout your organization’s lifespan.
    The idea is to expand and grow, but remain true to the original intent and purpose of the organization.

  • Razberry23

    fantastic post