Putting Values to Work

When you’re spending a Saturday afternoon, a sunny one, away from family, in a “retreat space,” seated on a plastic folding chair eating Costco snacks, talking about values, it begs a few questions:

What are values?

Can we go home? What do values have to do with making this an effective social change organization?

How do we know what our values are? After we define them, then what?

Values are core principles expressed as action, norms of behavior, or attitudes. They get forged in an individual or group psyche by positive models or painful experiences. Whether or not you measure up every day, values are the gauge.

It’s important to define our values. Great Britain might easily have surrendered to the 3rd Reich. Surrender was a no brainer. But working backwards from values, not knowing how it would turn out, Churchill stood up to his naysayers, and called on his entire country to fight. Values compel us, no matter what the data say.

Action guided by values has persuasive power at an order of magnitude that boggles conventional thinking. This is why values are the cornerstone of any worthy human endeavor and essential to our community-benefit-driven enterprises.

Our nonprofit organizations aren’t facing down tanks and fighter jets, but pretty darned close. Chronic homelessness, under-resourced education, straining health care systems, chronic disease — big stuff. Whatever our missions, collectively speaking we are Winston Churchill, facing challenges that will overwhelm us unless we can inspire people to pay attention, dig in, share resources, and confront the gaping maw of uncertainty.

Values compel us to do what’s right by the world, yes, but internally, with our organizations, they guide us to be true to our standards of behavior such that our means are aligned with our ends. Ever been mired in the misery of an organization that says one thing and does another? Values disconnects are the stuff of workplace hell. Why the high turnover? Why are we losing some of our best board members? Frequently, values disconnects occur not out of malice, but because an organization’s board and senior leaders have not invested the time to define and integrate values into the functional and decision making processes of the organization.

Whether you need to update your values or start from scratch, here’s what not to do. Don’t start asking people to swarm over a list of words and place sticky dots next to their favorites. The dictionary assigns each word multiple definitions. Words are complex and laden with our subjective meanings. Let’s not doom ourselves to this frustrating rabbit hole.

Instead, start with stories of when you’ve lived your values. Your good times, your challenging ones, the more epic the better; stories are how you suss out what you truly care about.

Here’s an exercise I use with board/staff groups to discern organizational values. This exercise takes about 90 minutes. (Skip past the fine print if you prefer to refer to this later.)

STEP 1: (15 min) Work on your own, timed writing exercise:

  • Write down a story of a time when your organization did something you are proud of. What made it challenging? Why did it come together?
  • Write down a story of a really hard time your organization faced and how you got through it. Who were the s/heros? What made the critical difference?
  • Write down the story of how your organization got started? Why was it imperative your organization come into being? What was special about it?

STEP 2: (15 min) Work with a partner, share stories, listen for values:

Turn to a partner and share your stories one at a time. Partners, as you hear the stories, listen for and write down values words. Words like honesty, equity, tenacity, fairness, creativity, etc. When the first storyteller has finished telling all three of her stories, the listener reports back the values words to the storyteller. Now switch. The first storyteller now becomes the listener and writes down values words while his partner reads aloud his stories. Repeat the process above. After having heard both person’s stories, choose your favorite, most values-rich story from among your six that to share with the full group.

STEP 3: (30 min) Work as a whole group, each pair shares favorite story, facilitator lists values words.

As a group, the facilitator asks pairs to share out their favorite story with the whole group plus their corresponding values words. The facilitator writes down the values words on a sheet at the front of the room.

STEP 4: (30 min) Work as a whole group to define categories, group values words, select:

After all groups report, review your full list of values words. Notice any natural groupings or themes and whether any categories seem to emerge. Group words by category (aim for no more than 6) and pick a single word from each category that best captures the essence of that category. Finish up by assigning 1-3 people to draft up descriptions next to your values words for review at a subsequent face-to-face meeting.

After defining values, then what?

Here are a several excellent examples of Values Statements or Guiding Principles. Creating a written statement is a fantastic milestone. But don’t stop there. Operationalize it. You can use the following questions to get started:

  • Where are we already living our values and how can we build on that?
  • What would integration of our values in our workplace and board culture make possible? What would it take to create that integration?
  • If our program approach were 100% aligned with our values what would that make possible? What would it take to move toward that alignment?

Looking for examples? In her September 11, 2015 column in Nonprofit Quarterly Column “Values in Your Organization and What they Have to Do with Making Money: Part 2”, Simone Joyaux offers eleven ways to operationalize values in your organization. My idea number twelve is to build values into high stakes decision-making with a “Strategy Screen.” Your Strategy Screen reminds you to consider what’s important — including values — as you weigh which direction to take.

A values vacuum hurts people and compounds the suffering our sector exists to ease. In 2012, Susan G Komen announced it would withdraw nearly $700,000 in funding from Planned Parenthood claiming it was doing so in response to in inquiry by a member of Congress. Its decision directly defunded breast screenings for poor women. In response, Komen affiliates experienced a huge backlash and support plummeted. The organization has never recovered and continues to see declining revenue and affiliate consolidations. In 2010, The American Red Cross raised $500,000 for Haitian earthquake relief that today, in 2018, has not been accounted for. No rebuilt roads, no more than six permanent homes. Contributions are on a death spiral. What values were at work here?

Our values guide us to stand up and do what’s right even when it’s difficult or lonely. But don’t think that values are old fashioned, even in this crazy era of rampant lying by people in high places. Rock solid, unambiguous values are your power source to advance along your strategic mission making path.

Need help operationalizing your values? Let’s talk.

What’s your vision, what’s your plan? Andrea’s mission is to evoke the moral imagination of nonprofit leaders (and occasionally the person sitting next to her on light rail) to create the world we all want. A strategic planning geek, she guides organizations through customized planning processes, resource development interventions, mergers, and leadership transitions.

Check out some riveting stories from her travels here.