Four Exercises to Establish and Actualize Your Nonprofit’s Core Values

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What role do core values play at your organization?

It’s been my experience that most nonprofits tend to place a great deal of emphasis on establishing their mission and vision (as they should), but totally – ahem – undervalue their core values. Core values are often treated as an afterthought. Cliche values statements that harken back to those 90s motivational office posters are thrown together in the final minutes of a strategic planning session and then never looked at again.

This is a big mistake.

Core values are as important to the direction of an organization as its mission and vision, and it’s time we start treating them that way. Your vision statement clarifies what the world would look like if your organization achieved all its goals, and your mission statement clarifies the sort of work you’re doing every day to get closer to that vision. But neither your mission nor your vision clarifies how your staff, board and volunteers should behave or make decisions on a day-to-day basis. And without that sort of clarity, you’re likely to fall off course.

Core values are often treated as an afterthought. Cliche values statements that harken back to those 90s office posters are thrown together in the final minutes of a strategic planning session and then never looked at again. Click To Tweet

You should spend as much time getting clear on your core values as you do your mission and vision, and even more time putting systems and processes in place to ensure you’re embedding them into the way your team works and taking action based on them.

That’s why today, I’d like to share three exercises to help you establish and actualize your nonprofit’s core values. If you’re not 100% clear on your values and using them every day to guide your work, these exercises will help. Make some time to go through them with your staff and board (and ideally external stakeholders like program participants and donors too) as soon as you can so that you’ll have the behavioral guideposts you need as you pursue your mission and work toward your vision.

Exercise 1: What Does it Look Like When We Do Our Best Work?

Ask the group you’ve assembled to work through values: “what does it look like when we’re doing our best work?” Ask them to write their response in narrative format, in just a paragraph or two. Then, have everyone share. Put the words that come up more than once across multiple peoples’ responses on a (virtual or physical) whiteboard, for reference in exercise 2.

Exercise 2: Important Decisions

Next, ask your group to brainstorm a list of three important decisions you’ve made as an organization over the last year. These could be things like closing facilities during COVID, sunsetting a program, or investing in new technology. Then, for each important decision, ask your group to list the values they feel your organization exhibited in the process of making that decision. The brainstormed list from Exercise 1 can be a helpful starting point here, but remind your group not to be limited by it. You can also share this master list of common values words to get wheels turning.

Exercise 3: Real-World Examples

After you’ve completed exercises 1 and 2 as a group, have a facilitator or a leader on your team group the most commonly mentioned values from those exercises into 5-7 values categories (ex: adaptive, agile, and flexible could all be grouped together). Then, give your group a homework assignment to provide 1-3 real-world examples of a time they saw someone at your organization acting on the values listed in that category. They can also indicate if there are values categories that they don’t feel are true to your organization, or that they can’t find examples of.
Here’s an example of the values categories we narrowed down to for this exercise with one of our clients, Comer Education Campus:

  • Adaptive, agile, flexible, responsive, decisive
  • Innovative, inventive, future-looking
  • Safety-focused, health-focused
  • Responsible, rational, pragmatic, practical, prudent
  • Committed, caring, customer/community-minded, whatever it takes
  • Motivated, passionate, hardworking, excellent
  • Equitable, prioritizing diversity equity and inclusion
  • Sustainable

Once they’ve completed your homework, have your facilitator or leader fine-tune the categories that remain into 1-2 words that best represent that value, along with a description for each. Then, come back together to discuss and wordsmith. Expect to spend 1-2 hours as a group getting your values statements to a point that feels truly representative of what your organization believes and how you want to act as you pursue your mission. Depending on how decisions get made in your organization, you may also need to facilitate listening sessions to get feedback from other stakeholders beyond those immediately involved in values development at this point as well.
Here’s how the final values ended up for Comer Education Campus:

  • Youth Power – We believe in the unlimited potential of young people and choose to invest in them as the key to a brighter future for our communities and our world.
  • Innovation – We move quickly and continuously to innovate our approach in response to the needs of the young people we work with and the community we are part of.
  • Wellbeing – We foster safe spaces that enhance the social, emotional and physical wellbeing of young people and their families, while also making our community a safer place to live.
  • Community Commitment – We are deeply connected with young people, their parents and our community. We commit to allowing their voices to guide our work, and to doing whatever it takes to help them thrive.
  • Equity and Inclusion – We believe everyone deserves the opportunity to live their full potential, and that our Campus and community are stronger when they are full of opportunities for people with diverse identities, backgrounds and perspectives. We prioritize action over intention and are working every day to make our Campus more equitable and inclusive.
  • Joy – We believe every young person deserves to have joy in their life. We create opportunities to be a kid and have fun every day, recognizing that joy is the key that unlocks positive youth development and brighter futures.

Exercise 4: Values Integration

Believe it or not, the hard work actually begins after you’ve established your values statements. Actualizing your values, and ensuring that everyone in your organization is truly using them to guide their actions and decision making is challenging, and there are no shortcuts. Still, this values integration exercise is a great starting point.

First, share the values statements established during exercise three with everyone on your team and board. And I really mean everyone. Then, task everyone with coming up with a bulleted list of 3-5 ways they’ll incorporate your newly established values into their work. Their responses will depend entirely on their role and the nature of their job. For example, someone in HR may commit to reformatting your performance evaluation process to ensure staff are evaluated based on their alignment with values. A program director may commit to re-evaluating the budget for their program to ensure the things they’re spending money on are in line with your core values. A director of development may commit to sunsetting a campaign that, while effective, relies on messaging that is counter to one of your values. Build a discussion of these bulleted lists into your action plans for the year, and make sure supervisors are following up with their direct reports to ensure commitments to values-related actions are kept.

Going through values exercises like the ones listed above will put your organization well on its way to giving core values the position of value they deserve. Make sure to re-evaluate your values every time you enter into a new strategic planning season to make sure they still hold true, just as you would with your mission and vision. Once your core values are well-established and everyone on your team is using them to guide day-to-day decision making, you’ll see just how powerful they can be.

Want more? Read our How-To Guide to Core Values article.

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