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 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.

The Lessons of Burnout

Why do you show up as you do? Why do you engage others to give, volunteer, and lead to make something in your community better? What were the watershed experiences which made that essential to your character?

For me, it was bullying. I was always the tallest in my class at Highland Oaks Elementary, hence the most physically formidable. On the playground, when I saw scrawnier kids being tormented by meanies, I could use my physical size to get it to stop. “Leave Tina alone!” That was all it took. As the best kickball player in the 6th grade, I had power.

But junior high changed all that. All of a sudden, my shirt was supposed to coordinate with my pants. I was expected to pluck my eyebrows, shave my legs, and temper my enthusiasm. Things I loved, like singing and running faster than all the boys, were social liabilities. The protector of the bullied became the bullied.

Knowing what cruelty feels like shaped my vision for a world where we all feel safe and wanted for who we are. In my work, I’m not not just doing a job, I’m leading from a stand forged early in life about fairness and kindness. It’s my power source. But sometimes, that power source is what pushes me to the dark side, to burnout.

When I am in burn out, I am not coming from a place of ease and joy. I feel pressure to perform. My attempts at humor fizzle. I sense I am sinking into creative dead lands. My husband listens to me analyze situations I am working on and I think, “I am the most boring person on the planet.”

My recipe for burnout goes like this:

  • I can fix this;
  • Faster faster;
  • We’ll worry about feelings (especially mine) later.

Burnout dials up old hurts. Generally, when you’re burning out you’re not at your best. Conventional wisdom would have us make the discomfort go away as fast as possible. Pick your poison. Martinis? Frenzy? Mad bursts of productivity can bring welcome, short-term relief. More exhaustion and an even deeper sense of burnout soon follow. You might take a vacation, noticing you feel even worse upon your return. Are you a rager? Are you extra self-critical? What are your signals?

Who or what is responsible for burnout? Is it:

  1. A question of self-care?
  2. A problem of poor organizational culture?
  3. A sign you are ready for transition in your professional and personal life?

If the answer is A — and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is — I can take steps to prioritize self-care. I’m smart! I can add back all that stuff to my to-do list and my budget that I’m supposed to be doing. Hot yoga. Long vacations. Personal coaching. Every January we are awash in the allure of being happy. There is an answer, we are told. But, the older we get, as we round the track of accomplishment, and we keep circling those January’s, it’s harder to believe in the easy fix.

If answer B holds some truth, your organization’s culture is one where staff must load up, hurry up, and subordinate their needs to hit targets. For this organization, burnout isn’t just the norm; it’s a point of pride. Employees are churning, revenue might look good, but it’s all a house of cards. Drama looms. You can count on chaos. The nonprofit sector is rife with this.

Answer C acknowledges that burnout is a part of the triptych of a life of dedication even in a well run organization. In other words, if you are paying attention at all, if you care about your work, the world, yourself, sooner or later, things get out of alignment and it shows up in your body. Hopefully you are paying attention. Good news. You’re right on schedule.

Nonprofit employers can help leaders and staff remain mindful by creating a culture of reflection and renewal. Perhaps the most important thing an employer can do is to offer generous paid time off, including paid sabbaticals.

Even with generous PTO, burnout for the social change professional is normal and healthy. You will hit a point when it’s time to make a change, you will blow past it and ignore it as long as you can, and you will burn out. The only question is degree. How thick is that skull and how good are you at ignoring how you feel?

Burnout is the invitation to stand on the shore of your life and wade in. But you didn’t train for this. You’re a do-er. What the heck now?

Follow your suffering. I followed my suffering right into a Zen meditation circle. Before your next retail therapy session, sit with it. In your car, on the light rail, in a waiting room, at home on the couch. Get quiet. Commit to practicing a full month before deciding if it’s for you. These days, every chance I get I focus my attention, breath normally, and observe my thoughts and practice paying attention to how I feel (in my stomach, my neck, or wherever). I add no judgment. I just notice. Breath in and out. 5 minutes. 10 minutes. If I can, I set a timer for 30 minutes. As my mind wanders off, I return my attention again and again to focus.

If I can’t find my way to doing that, I simply bring my attention to what I am doing — walking down the stairs, brushing my teeth, making the bed, cutting onions, folding laundry. Breath in and out.

At work, I build in moments for mindful connection. These can include simple opening and closing rituals like beginning meetings with a deep inhale/exhale as a group, and ending all meetings with a short reflection. These small actions add up to watershed differences in team cohesion, behavior, and results.

The main reason I meditate is for me. When I practice focusing for 5- 30 minutes a few times a week, I lighten up. My presence is less fractured. Colors are more vibrant. I don’t feel compelled to fill the void with my own voice. Ideas flow. Scary big projects seem less complicated. I have energy. I feel spontaneous and at ease. My jokes are hilarious. Life, not vacation, restores me.

What are your stories about wading into the questions behind your burnout? Are you trying anything in your life or in your team you would be willing to share?


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.