Engaging supporters and your organization’s core values

By Ed Sluga

Defining your core values is only an agenda item on your yearly staff planning session or board retreat. It is part of the basic elements of any truly successful organization. It provides those that would support you with the basic elements of why you are worthy of their support. It is an articulation of what is it that makes you passionate about your organization and what you truly believe. Core values should be the underpinning of all decisions and actions taken by your Board and staff and they represent a standard of behaviour – a code of conduct – that everyone who is associated with you needs to understand, to accept and, most importantly, to live by every day.

Getting to your core values isn’t easy. You may be familiar with the elevator speech. You step into an elevator with someone you have never met who asks you what you do for a living. You have 30 seconds to get their attention, make them interested and wanting to find out more. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

Creating your core values and, even more significantly, recognizing what has to be done to live them, is like that: easy on the surface, but more complex underneath.

Core values are the building blocks for a truly successful and worthy organization. Once developed they:

  1. Become the litmus test against which all decisions and actions are measured. If one of your core values is “Integrity in all things,” this means in practice that you always do the right thing no matter how difficult this may be for us, no matter what the consequences and “even if no-one is looking.”
  2. Help you to recruit volunteers and staff who either live your values now, by example, or can be encouraged to adopt them with sincerity in a short time. Recruitment is always challenging. Is this person a good fit? Will he or she be a good ambassador? Selecting those who values match your own is one good way to build a great team.
  3. Demonstrate that you are worthy of support and generosity. If a donor asks you, “What do you believe in, what do you stand for?” and your answer is vague and ill-defined, chances are slim that the money will flow. People need to believe in you, what you represent, and what your organization thinks is important. Core values are an explicit way to express these important principles.
  4. Set you apart from thousands of organizations and charities that have never thought about their core values or set them down. People give to organizations and people whom they respect, with whom they feel a kinship. Donors want to know who you are, but they also want to know WHY you are. Core values express that “WHY’ in a unique and appealing way

All too often, people are expected to “figure out” the core values of an organization, whether they are staff, volunteers or the public at large. So articulating one’s core values – having a real sense of what is truly important and valuable – is not only an excellent way to express the brand, but it helps you to be worthy in the eyes of others, with no room for misinterpretation

Some good rules when developing core values.

  1. Make them real. Values can be words on a page, or they can be real. If we say “Respect for others” is a value, can we support that by the way we recognize, reward, thank and support our volunteers? How do we conduct our relationships? Do we pay our bills on time and respect our suppliers?
  2. Make them achievable with effort. Many decisions and actions arise that would be much easier to deal with if we did not have core values. But we do. Make sure we judge every decision by the litmus test question of, “Is this in line with our core values?” If the answer is “no,” then the decision is probably the wrong one, no matter how “convenient” it may seem at the time.
  3. Make them inspirational. Stretch and challenge Board members and volunteers to do better, to work harder, to be more aware of your cause and to be more generous simply by being their best selves at all times. Recognize, respect and reward those who consistently live the values as well as they can.
  4. Make them memorable. People need to be able to recite them in the elevator! If they are too complicated or ponderous, no one will recall them. “Passion” is a strong and memorable word with lots of applications. “Pursuing everything we do with great passion” is a true mouthful. (Is passion a value? Perhaps pick a value that is outlined later on.)
  5. Make them durable. Core values do not change with the wind. They have to be able to see the organization through good times and bad, through changes and crises, through all the ups and downs of daily life. Yet, no matter what the situation, we need to be able to go back to our values to show us how to think, how to behave, how to act and react, and how to measure the ethics, morality and truth of everything we do.
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