Core values get a bad rap in the strategic planning world. While most nonprofit people dive into mission, vision and identity development with excitement and inspiration, core value development seems to elicit apathy at best. Maybe it’s flashbacks to the generic values posters of the 80s, or maybe it’s just the fact that you’ve worked at too many organizations during your career that failed to actualize their core values in any meaningful way.
I’m here today to voice an unpopular opinion that core values, when framed and used properly, are just as powerful as a mission and vision statement, if not more. They can guide every decision your nonprofit makes, and every action that every person on your team takes.
As the leader of one of our nonprofit clients put it recently to her staff: “the process of developing core values can be tedious, but having and actually using them can be transformational.”
I’d like to do what I can to get you inspired about the potential core values hold to transform your organization, so below, you’ll find my top five favorite ways to bring your core values to life, followed by seven inspirational examples of core values from nonprofits in a variety of issue areas, and our how-to guide for developing nonprofit core values.
Top Five Ways to Bring Core Values to Life
- Develop a decision-making framework based on your core values and train everyone on your nonprofit’s team on how to use it. Then, put it front and center any time a challenging decision must be made at your organization.
- Recruit staff and board members using your core values. Develop and use skills assessments, personality assessments and other tools that help you assess potential hires and board members based on their alignment with your values.
- Restructure your performance evaluation process to emphasize staff alignment with your core values.
- Audit your programs and services based on your core values. You may find that your nonprofit is doing too many of the wrong things when you apply a values test to your suite of programs and services. On the same note, any time a new program or service is proposed, the first question you should ask is whether it aligns with your mission, vision and values.
- Make space for publicly recognizing core values in practice. There are many ways to go about this, but one example I love is from an organization that set up a series of large glass jars, each full of a different color of beads. Each color represented one of the organization’s core values. Then each staff member also had a small jar, and any time one staff member saw a co-worker exemplifying one of the core values, they could take that color bead and place it in the co-worker’s jar.
Seven Nonprofit Core Values Examples
Youth and Community Development Nonprofit Core Values: Comer Education Campus
- 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.
- 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.
Education Nonprofit Core Values: First Graduate
- Empathy – We strive to recognize and understand the perspectives, feelings and lived experiences of others, including and especially those most different from ourselves, and give one another grace.
- Community – We believe in the value of healthy, lasting relationships between our staff, board, students, families, and do our part to contribute to the communities we are part of.
- Resilience – We are passionate and tireless in pursuit of our mission to help students become the first in their families to graduate from college, and persevere through all obstacles.
- Accountability – We hold ourselves and one another responsible for ensuring First Graduate maximizes its impact, and we do what we say we will do.
- Learning – We treat challenges as learning opportunities, and continually evolve to meet the needs of the students we work with based on what we learn.
Justice and Equity – We affirm the dignity and worth of each member of our community, while recognizing and working to combat the structural forces (such as racism) that have harmed some groups while benefiting others.
- Student-Centricity – We center the voices, priorities and wellbeing of the students and families we work with in every decision we make and every action we take.
Hunger Nonprofit Core Values: Feeding America
- We strive for equity and work toward solutions to eliminate structural and systemic inequalities that contribute to food insecurity.
- We listen with empathy and respect for one another, valuing individual experiences and feelings while treating people with kindness and dignity.
- We collaborate and build community through partnerships founded on integrity and trust.
- We take care of resources placed in our hands through the generosity of others – food, funds, community and member trust, and employee careers and well being.
- We act with swift and focused purpose, allowing room for mistakes while seeking continuous growth and learning.
Environmental Nonprofit Core Values: Greenpeace
- Personal responsibility and nonviolence. We take action based on conscience. This means we are accountable for our actions and take personal responsibility. We are committed to peacefulness; everyone on a Greenpeace action is trained in nonviolence.
- Independence. We do not accept money from governments, corporations or political parties. Individual contributions, together with grants from foundations, are the only source of our funding.
- Greenpeace has no permanent friends or foes. If your government or company is willing to change, we will work with you to achieve your aims. Reverse course, and we will be back. What matters isn’t words, but actions.
- Promoting solutions. It’s not enough for us to point the finger; we develop, research and promote concrete steps towards a green and peaceful future for all of us.
Animal Welfare Nonprofit Core Values – Best Friends Animal Society
- Golden Rule: To treat all living things as we ourselves would wish to be treated.
- Kindness: To demonstrate compassion and respect for all living creatures.
- Positive influence: To judge our effectiveness by the extent to which animal lives are saved and improved, and by the positive experience of the people we touch.
- Leadership: To lead by example, developing, promoting and sharing great new ideas and programs to help animals.
- Authenticity: To do what we say we do.
- Transparency: To be open and honest in our relationships.
Human Rights Nonprofit Core Values: The Human Rights Campaign
- Responsibility: We are mindful that the actions we take have an impact on people’s lives, and our duty is to them. As one of the world’s leading LGBTQ+ civil rights organizations, accountability is core to our mission. We are entrusted by those we serve to observe the highest standards and ethics.
- Equity and Intersectionality: We believe that the diversity of LGBTQ+ people is one of our greatest strengths, yet deep disparities exist — especially for those of us who sit at the intersection of marginalized identities. Oppression in all forms is inextricably linked, which means our mission for LGBTQ equality will only be realized when we collaborate with our partners to break down every barrier and ensure that all LGBTQ+ people have the same ability to thrive.
- Learning and Openness: We build spaces for engagement, reflection and developing competencies central to our work. As part of that growth process, we must acknowledge our missteps with humility and lean into our responsibility to learn and evolve.
- Boldness: We are innovative, creative and courageous in our pursuit of making real and lasting change for LGBTQ+ people. It’s our job to hurry up history.
- Resilience: We know that adversity can build us up instead of tearing us down. And the strength and wisdom that are borne out of struggle are only possible through caring and healing, empowering each other, and finding moments to celebrate our successes — large and small — even in our most challenging moments.
- Heart: We do our best work when we do it with a strong sense of purpose and a passion for a better world. Even when we’re doing hard things, we can find love and joy in unexpected places and understand the essential role hope plays in our work.
- Respect: We root ourselves in our shared humanity and treat each other with kindness and compassion. We’re at our best when we honor the equal dignity and worth of all people — even in the face of conflict.
- Community and Teamwork: We value the transformative impact of collaboration. By working together, fostering open communication, furthering understanding, and building caring and supportive environments, we can achieve something bigger than we could alone.
Arts & Culture Nonprofit Core Values: Natural History Museum of Utah Values
- We are a creative, dynamic institution.
- We attract and serve a broad, diverse audience.
- We meet the highest professional and ethical standards.
- We are accountable for our work.
- Our scientific research and interpretation are interdisciplinary, timely, and encourage active inquiry.
- We strive for and promote sustainability in all we do.
- We seek and sustain meaningful partnerships.
If I’ve done my job with this post, you might be starting to second guess your apathy about values. If that’s true, you’ll want to check out this post on how to develop core values and this one with more ideas on how to bring them to life.
Free tool: Check out the How-To Guide to Nonprofit Values for exercises that will guide you through identifying nonprofit core values for your organization.