Most of the nonprofits I know live on one end of the spectrum or the other when it comes to core values. There’s one camp that is totally gung-ho about core values. These are the folks who bring up words like trust and joy nearly every time you talk to them, the folks who hire, fire, and aim to inspire through using their core values in every possible application and setting. Then, there’s another camp that seems almost allergic to the concept of core values. These are the folks who write them off as trite–little more than words on a poster with a photo from the 80s and a cheap plastic frame. Give these folks goals, objectives, KPIs and metrics, but don’t come near them with a core values statement.
So where do I sit?
It might surprise you to learn that, despite the fact that we include core values as a Focus element in our Nonprofit Impact System, I’m a values skeptic. But what I’m really skeptical about is not the value of core values. No, I believe that core values can be an immensely useful tool for nonprofits that want to align their staff and supporters around a common set of aims and behaviors. What I’m skeptical about is our sector’s use of core values. I think most organizations are approaching values all wrong. They’re putting far too much time into developing values statements and far too little into actually embedding their values into the parts of the organization where they really belong and can be useful. I’d like to see the sector take a more intentional approach to developing and actualizing core values. Here’s what I’d like that approach to include:
1. Stakeholder engagement in developing core values
At the end of the day, every nonprofit exists to benefit one or many groups of stakeholders. This is true whether you’re a human services organization that helps people in your community overcome challenges in their lives, or a membership organization that helps its members build connections and professional experience. Your purpose is centered around the people you serve, so it makes perfect sense that you should consult those people for input when developing your core values. And yet that almost never happens. The vast majority of nonprofits I’ve encountered have developed their core values in a vacuum, involving staff, board members and perhaps some volunteers, but not the external stakeholders they provide programs and services to. This needs to change. If your organization is about to embark on a journey to develop or refine its core values, the first thing you should do is build a committee of external stakeholders – specifically the people who stand to benefit from your programs and services – and engage them through listening sessions, surveys, and interviews (or some combination of the three) to get their input on the values they feel should be most important to an organization that does your sort of work.
2. Clear core values definitions
Core values must be clearly defined before they can become a useful tool that actually impacts how your organization operates. Any organization can come up with a list of words that feel important, but it’s far more rare to find an organization that can actually define those words in the context of their daily work. If your organization has clearly defined its core values, you’ll know, because everyone on your team will be able to provide examples of their co-workers living those values, as well as explain what sorts of behaviors they encourage and discourage.
To show you what I mean, here are three of the Core Values we helped develop for Comer Education Campus, along with their definitions.
Value: Youth Power
We believe in the limitless potential of young people and choose to invest in them as the key to a brighter future for our communities and our world.
Example 1: A young person who spends time at Gary Comer Youth Center had an idea to host a Black Excellence Bowl where teens could show off their Black history knowledge via a trivia-style competition. We encouraged them to take the lead in putting on this event and provided encouragement and support through the process.
Example 2: We restructured our budget so that funds could be more directly allocated to young people and their families.
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.
Example 1: We started a midnight basketball program to help keep young people engaged in safe, healthy activity during a time when trouble can sometimes arise in our community.
Example 2: We have always provided meals for the young people in our community, but when COVID-19 hit, we saw a need to help adults access healthy and nutritious meals as well. One older adult started coming to Comer Education Campus for meals daily and reported that some of her chronic issues have improved, and her doctor has been pleased with her test results since she changed her diet with our support.
Value: 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.
Example 1: We prioritize diversity in our hiring practices and put systems in place to ensure inclusion and equitable opportunity for all, including salary equity reviews, the creation of gender-neutral spaces and much more.
Example 2: Our mission and geographic focus mean that our programs serve young people who have faced barriers to opportunity due to their race and socioeconomic status. Our work helps knock those barriers down, and we are taking action all the time to improve our ability to do this work, including engaging in racial sensitivity trainings that all staff attend, and hosting events like our MLK Day celebration, which engages a very diverse range of stakeholders.
As you can see, each of the core values above is accompanied by a 1-2 sentence description and two examples of that value being lived out in the real world at Comer Education Campus. Those examples were sourced directly from Comer Education Campus staff and program participants, and they are a critical part of the definitions because they make each value real and tangible. They paint a picture of exactly what vague concepts like wellbeing look like in reality, and call to mind many more opportunities for staff to exhibit that value.
If your organization’s core values are currently just words on paper, it’s time to expand them into definitions and examples like these. Without that context, they won’t do you much good.
3. Internal incorporation of core values
Core values work doesn’t end with crafting definitions and sourcing examples. That’s actually where it should begin. Once you’ve arrived at a set of values statements that your whole organization feels good about, it’s time to start incorporating them into the facets of your organization where they belong. Here are just a few of the areas where we recommend leveraging core values:
- Strategic planning: Filter each goal in your strategic plan through the lens of your core values. If the goal does not align, throw it out.
- Hiring: come up with interview questions that test for alignment with core values among candidates, and use a rubric to score responses.
- Program design: Make decisions about which programs your organization should start, stop, or continue offering based on alignment with your values.
- Performance management: Conduct reviews using values rubrics as a performance management tool. Ask employees to self-evaluate and evaluate their peers based on alignment with core values.
- Vendor selection: choose the partners and vendors you work with based on their level of alignment with your values.
- Budgeting: spend more on the things that enhance your organization’s ability to live its values, and less on the things that do not. For example, if collaboration is a core value, you can justify spending more on open concept office space or online meeting and collaboration tools like Zoom and Miro.
This list is far from exhaustive. I’d like to see more organizations challenge themselves to find opportunities to bring core values into other facets of their work rather than limiting their usefulness to employee handbooks and signs on the wall.
4. Internal and external accountability to core values
Why have core values if you’re not going to hold your team and organization accountable to them? It seems like an obvious best practice, but it’s rare. I’d like to see more organizations establish metrics for measuring how well they’re living their core values, and then track those metrics on a shared internal dashboard. And I’d really like to see more organizations report on those metrics externally, as part of their annual report or even better yet, a shared public dashboard. What an amazing way to bring the concept of stakeholder-centric values full circle.
Are you ready to take a fresh look at your nonprofit’s values?