Lukewarm, generic, uninspiring—these words should never describe your values. Yet, many nonprofit organizations continue to use solitary words as their values.
It’s tempting to follow suit because, by definition, words like respect, transparent, and honest provide a solid foundation for your organization. Yet, solitary words as values often lack individuality and impact. They fail to do their job: to inspire your stakeholders.
Values should be the principles upon which your organization makes decisions. AND, they should be memorable. When’s the last time Merriam-Webster’s definition of transparent pumped you up for a big board meeting or inspired your donor appeal letter?
Without a set of active, engaging values, you and your organization risk leaving your volunteers, employees, and donors bored at best, or with fleeting allegiance at worst.
Here’s how you can powerfully articulate your true values with active language that others can clearly understand, rally around, and live every day.
Pinpointing your values takes time and a practical way of going about it. Check out Jennie’s post on how to identify the values most important to your organization.
Let’s assume you already have 3-5 values in mind. Next, it’s time to really define them so they can be understood and appreciated by everyone expected to live them, like your employees and volunteers.
At Mission Minded, we define values as:
The essence of your brand. Values are the code by which the brand lives—the principles upon which you make your decisions. They are the heart and soul of the organization and do not tend to change over time. They set the tone for your brand and remind your internal audiences (employees and board members, in particular), how to act and make decisions on behalf of your organization every day.
We’ve always believed in defining values beyond merely the definition of a solitary word, creating a unique and meaningful connection for the organization. This approach works effectively because we don’t settle on bankrupt words, jargon, or basic definitions. Rather, we work hand-in-hand with clients to determine the unique meaning of the value to their organization.
For instance, Youth Outside prides itself on transforming the lives of youth through outdoor experiences. Rather than land on a value of “transformation,” the easy and obvious choice, we unpacked the meaning to get to the core of the value:
LIFE CHANGING: Status quo is not in our vocabulary. We expect more of our work, seeking to create life-changing connections and inspire deeper understanding. We aren’t okay with merely navigating a new pathway—we expect that pathway to transform the way youth interact with, appreciate, and care for the outdoors both today and tomorrow. Likewise, we want our staff to feel challenged and supported so that their experience with Youth Outside is the best and most meaningful of their career.
Values written as single words can serve your organization when you push, and individualize, the definition. Another way to articulate your values with more creativity and originality is through a call to action.
Now more than ever people want direction, purpose, and deep understanding. That’s why organizations are leaning into their values, as Sarah describes in this post about nonprofits living their values.
Values that also serve as calls-to-action provide shortcuts—memorable reminders—for internal audiences to live every day. When values are shared externally, they signal to others what your organization stands for, and what to expect when interacting with, benefiting from, or supporting your work.
We recently helped Jefferson Center for Mental Health freshen their brand, key messages, and tagline. For Jefferson Center, collaboration with their clients and other organizations is one of their primary values. Rather than simply title this value “collaboration” or “cooperation,” we constructed a value unique to Jefferson Center:
COLLABORATE TO MAKE LIFE BETTER: Our goals are best accomplished by working hand-in-hand with clients, family members, co-workers, colleagues, partners, community agencies, businesses, elected officials, and peer organizations throughout the state and nation. We embrace our leadership position, and we know that through meaningful cooperation and shared insights, we can help individuals live better, while doing the most good for our community.
So the next time you’re tempted to define your values with single words or generic phrases stop yourself and ask:
While this Harvard Business Review article on making your values mean something focuses on corporate values and was typed nearly 15 years ago, its contents still ring relevant today.
Julie Malmberg Grawe is Director of Digital and a Senior Brand Strategist based in Denver with diverse experience working in the nonprofit, foundation, and corporate sectors.
See all posts by Julie Malmberg Grawe