How does an organization get to its core values?

by Ed Sluga

Ed Sluga and Peter Barrow are the authors of Worthy and Prepared

The values conversation is one of the most important that any Board and Senior Staff of a not-for-profit charitable organization can conduct, yet for many it is never held.


First, because many groups find it hard to talk about these “touchy feely” things. They would rather get on with the cold, hard business of raising cash. They forget that donors only give to organizations that they perceive to be worthy and that the absence of values almost certainly translates into the absence of worthiness over time.

Second, because this is a hard conversation. It forces people to look really hard at some tough issues.

  1. Why is what we do important? (Something we call The Destiny Proposition of an organization). For example, we promote the principle of good manners around the world so that people will live together more tolerantly.
  2. What are our core beliefs about what we do? For example, we believe that good manners reduce tensions and help to eliminate conflicts.
  3. What are the most important actions we take that express those beliefs best? For example, we are consistently well-mannered in all our dealings with others and advocate strongly for good manners wherever we go.
  4. What do we expect of ourselves and others? For example, the highest possible level of respect for other people.
  5. What behaviours must we model with each other, with volunteers, with donors, with others? For example, the courage to challenge and change bad manners wherever we find them.

Once those fundamental questions are asked, it’s important to make a list of the key values that must underpin the answers. This requires the time, energy and commitment to have the core values conversation.

We recommend that you don’t do this on your own, but with the help of a trained facilitator or outside moderator; someone who can help you to stay focused and on track while helping you to look as objectively as possible at the decisions you make.

Here’s a typical list of potential values that might result from the questions above. Keep what works and replace the rest with words or phrases that best reflect what your organization truly believes at its core:

  • Compassion
  • Goodness
  • Hard Work
  • Mercy
  • Generosity
  • Sharing
  • Creativity
  • Belief
  • Participation
  • Freedom
  • Courage
  • Equality
  • Respect
  • Tolerance
  • Unselfishness
  • Kindness
  • Entrepreneurial Spirit
  • Forgiveness

Chances that any organization that undergoes an exercise to find its core values will find that a reasonably consistent and a clear priority list will emerge. The concept of “worthiness” demands that organizations asks themselves these tough questions, if only to ensure that they truly are perceived to be deserving of gifts and is doing all it can to attract donors to its cause.

Finally, the list gives a charity a true building block for another equally important conversation which focuses on:

  1. Are they real, achievable, inspirational, memorable and durable, both for us and for all others who will connect with us? For example, if a value is “commitment,” does this fill us with a sense of challenge, purpose and achievement? Does it encourage all of us to “go the extra mile,” work hard and do what has to be done?
  2. How are we living them on a day-to-day basis? When have we shown these values to be true? When have we sometimes missed the boat? For example, when we decided this year not to honor a financial commitment we made 12 months ago because the economy has since tanked, was that in line with our core value of Integrity?
  3. Do all our messages and materials reflect our values? If so, how? If not, how can we ensure that they do? For example, should they be listed on our website, with an explanation?
  4. Does every key member of our team know what the values are, what they mean and how to express them to others? For example, a Board member may be asked: “So, when you guys say that you practice compassion, what does that mean?” They must be able to answer the question clearly, simply and effectively.
  5. Before we implement decisions, what process can we develop to measure all our decisions and actions against them? For example, should we have a 15-minute session at the end of each meeting to ensure that the actions we have taken are “on value”?

Values not only speak to the essential essence of a charity or cause and the people who work for it. They drive everything that the organization believes and does. In this way, they connect and resonate with potential donors who either share the same values or are transformed and motivated by them to give generously and often!

Scroll to Top