Lukewarm, disengaged, uninspired.
This is not how you want people to feel about your organization’s values.
Many nonprofits, schools, and foundations use a set of single words to express their values. But while words like respect, transparency, and innovation may be ‘accurate,’ these singular words can lack individuality, impact, or definition.
Single-word values fail to inspire your stakeholders to act.
What’s really needed is an active expression of those value ideas—calls to action that others can clearly understand, rally around, and live out every day.
Values are the heart and soul of your organization—and thus the heart of your brand and strategic plan. They set the tone for your priorities, how you show who you are, and remind your internal audiences (employees, volunteers, and board members, in particular) how to act and make decisions on behalf of your organization every day.
By their very nature, mission-driven organizations are values-oriented. Food banks, for example, care about those experiencing food insecurity in a given community, and uphold values of health, humanitarianism, and altruism. Arts organizations embody the values of creativity and public spiritedness in their work.
Alas, nonprofits often fail to define or articulate their values consistently and clearly. Sure, maybe there is a list of your values posted somewhere in your office or tucked away on a page of your website. But if you polled your organization right now, how many people would be able to recite your values? How many could tell you what that value looked like in their daily work?
Without a set of active, engaging values, you risk leaving volunteers, employees, donors, faculty, staff, and others unable to represent you well because there isn’t a clear expectation of acting on the values rather than just reciting them.
It’s time to go beyond the cookie-cutter solitary words to create a unique and meaningful connection for your organization. Don’t settle for jargon or bankrupt language—we’re looking at you, excellence, innovation, and trustworthy! Not only do you want your values to be uniquely you, and differentiate you from your peer organizations; the people who care about your organization want more—they want direction, purpose, and deep understanding.
They want a call to action.
Values that serve as calls-to-action provide shortcuts—memorable reminders—for internal audiences to live every day. When we shift values from simply describing “who we are” to outlining “what we do every day,” these statements signal to others what your organization exemplifies, and what to expect when they interact with, benefit from, or support your work.
Puente de la Costa Sur is an agency that prides itself on supporting rural residents, many of whom are farmworkers, as they work to achieve their dreams. Rather than land on the value of “social justice,” an easy and obvious choice, we unpacked the meaning to get to the core of the value and worded it as an active verb. Notice how doing so doubles as instruction for anyone who hears or reads it:
CLAIM JUSTICE: We witness and name the injustices we see in our community and in our systems. We work with our neighbors so that they can live in dignity now, even as we keep our eye on the never-ending work to address systemic oppression.
Now consider how we helped them activate this value of “individual empowerment:”
SHARE STRENGTH: We are all part of a whole, but not each of us knows that we are in charge of our own power. Puente does our best to tap into that power, both for an individual’s dignity and for the benefit of the community we love.
Make sure your values work for you – not against you. Next time you’re tempted to define your values with single words or generic phrases stop yourself and ask:
Is your organization trying to refine how you express your values? Mission Minded can help! Reach out so that we can explore the possibilities together.
Jennie Winton is a Founding Partner of Mission Minded, a 25-year marketing veteran sought for her expertise in branding nonprofit organizations, and a one-on-one leadership coach.
See all posts by Jennie Winton