How-to Guide for Developing Core Values at Your Nonprofit

3 min read

Core values define and institutionalize the essence of your nonprofit. They are words that are easy to remember, well defined and well understood by everyone at your organization.

Read on to learn more about what core values are and how to define and institutionalize them at your nonprofit.

What are nonprofit core values?

Core values: A set of guiding principles that shape the behavior and decision making of everyone on a nonprofit’s team.

Your nonprofit's core values are a set of guiding principles that shape the behavior and decision making of everyone on a nonprofit’s team. Click To Tweet

Your nonprofit’s core values are part of the fabric of your organization. In Good to Great and the Social Sector, Jim Collins writes, “Great organizations keep clear the difference between their core values (which never change) and operating strategies and culture practices (which endlessly adapt to a changing world).”

Your core values should be well defined, documented, shared and regularly referred to when making decisions, hiring new employees, evaluating programs and services and more.

How do you develop your nonprofit’s core values?

Core values are typically developed by a team and then socialized with the larger organization. In some cases, the values creation team is made up of organizational leaders, which is typical with founder-led nonprofits, while in other cases it can include staff from several departments as well as members of the board. Some nonprofit teams choose to conduct a survey of employees prior to embarking on values creation to get organization-wide input on their values.

If you’re on the team charged with creating core values at your nonprofit, you’ll typically go through a set of exercises that help you brainstorm words that could become your nonprofit’s core values. For example, each member of your values creation team might answer questions such as:

  • Think through the important decisions your organization has made in recent months. What values do you feel may have guided these decisions?
  • What words would you use to describe your team / what makes a great team?
  • When you describe [nonprofit name], what words come to mind?

It can also be helpful to review other organizations’ values for inspiration.

Following your values exercises, you should have a long list of words. These words can be discussed and sorted into thematic or categories, which can then be narrowed down to the words that best represent your nonprofit’s values.

Image of a slide titled "Values Exercise 2: Identify Themes." It then reads "Instructions: As a group, we'll categorize the most mentioned and/or resonant values from the previous exercise into up to eight theme ideas." Eight boxes follow in which values can be categorized into themes. How do you make core values work at your nonprofit?

Once you settle on the words that represent your organization’s core values, you need to define them. For example, if you choose the word Generosity as a value, what does that mean to your organization?

With your values defined, you’ll also want to develop examples for each one to give your team context as to how that value is demonstrated in your day-to-day work.

Developing your core values is the start. Institutionalizing them is how you shape mission-aligned behaviors and decision making at your organization. We recommend publicly displaying your nonprofit’s values, including them in your employee handbook and board onboarding materials, making them part of your hiring, employee review and strategic planning processes, among other things.

While core values live in the Focus element of the Nonprofit Impact System, they permeate every other facet from Strategy, to People, to Progress.

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