Lukewarm, disengaged, uninspired—this is not what you want people to feel about your organization’s values. Yet, many nonprofits, schools, and foundations use a set of single value words when what’s really needed is an active expression of those value ideas that both tells your stakeholders what you value, and also inspires them to join you.
Words like respect, transparency and innovative may actually be your values yet these singular words can lack individuality, impact, or definition. They can also unintentionally reinforce white supremacy culture or lack inclusivity. Most importantly, they fail to do their job: inspiring your stakeholders to act.
Values should be the principles upon which your organization makes decisions. They should clearly describe the kinds of actions you expect of your stakeholders. AND, they should be easy to remember. Take this quiz: 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 and your organization risk leaving your 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.
Here’s how you can powerfully articulate your 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.
Let’s say you already have 3-5 values in mind based on a true understanding of what makes your organization special. (If you don’t, seek input from a variety of stakeholders to help create and cull the list of values that truly drive your work.)
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 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, volunteers 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 for bankrupt words (looking at you, excellence, innovation, and trustworthy.) We also reject jargon, or basic definitions. Instead, we work with clients to determine the unique meaning of the value to their organization.
For instance, 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 a 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.
Values serve your organization when you push, and individualize, the definition. The best way to articulate your values with more creativity and originality is through a call to action.
The people who care about your organization want direction, purpose, and deep understanding. That’s why organizations are leaning into their values, as I describe 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 exemplifies, and what to expect when interacting with, benefiting from, or supporting your work.
At Mission Minded one of our values is ensuring work-life balance for our team. How do we express that so they know it’s real and that they should embrace it? With the call to action to Live Fully. Living fully means passionately engaging in our work, the mission of our clients, and the causes we personally support. At the same time, we take time to log off, unplug, and embrace the other aspects of our lives because we know a healthy life balance enables us to deliver our best.
Next time you’re tempted to define your values with single words or generic phrases stop yourself and ask:
Bonus: this Harvard Business Review article on making your values mean something focuses on corporate values and was written nearly 20 years ago. Just like values that can and should endure, its contents are still true today.
Is your organization trying to refine how you express your values? Mission Minded can help! Reach out to us so that we can explore the possibilities for you!
Sarah R. Moore, our Director of Brand Strategy, joined Mission Minded from a career that has spanned both the private and nonprofit sector.
See all posts by Sarah Moore