There are the stated values of your organization and then the real values. Hopefully they match.
Many nonprofits have a mission statement, a vision statement, and then a set of stated values. They might call them “core ethics, “ or “guiding principles,” or “key priorities,” or “organizational values.” This is a good thing — to think about, identify, and name these values, and then to promote them throughout the organization.
What’s also good, important, and valuable is to ask, “Are these really the principles that characterize how we go about our work, or do they only represent wishful thinking?” Are they aspirational or actual? An organization can declare beautiful, lofty values but then operate in ways that fall short. To not practice what you preach is called hypocrisy. The thing about hypocrisy is, it can happen by degrees. I think very few nonprofits are flat-out, thoroughly, massively hypocritical. But I think many nonprofits are hypocritical in some ways or to some extent.
So how to smoke out the real values from the stated values? Here’s one good way: listen to the stories you most love to tell.
I recently had a conversation with the CEO of an organization that is doing good work in 30 countries. I asked him a simple question that I often ask nonprofit leaders: “What’s going well?” Immediately he lit up and a smile came to his face. He told me about an initiative helping brick-factory slaves in Pakistan. After I heard the story I realized I had just learned a lot about the values of this organization. I learned:
1. They value serving the poorest and most oppressed people in the world.
2. They value families and children — one of the main things they do for these workers is provide simple schools for their children. Which shows they also value primary education.
3. They value local initiative — the CEO made a point of telling me how this project was not initiated, mandated, led, or even facilitated from above — it was Pakistani-launched and -led.
4. They value simple, compassionate, direct, grass-roots action.
The story also showed what they don’t value. A different organization would see this laborer-slavery and seek to address it through social action, legal intervention, political advocacy, or political organizing.
So listen to the stories you most like to tell. What are the elements in those stories you are most pleased with? Why is this a great story? Hopefully you will find a lot of alignment with your stated values. Or you might find there are good things you value that should be added to the list. Or you might find you have listed values that never show up in your stories — do you really value them? Or, if you’re honest, you might uncover (hopefully only mild) hypocrisy.
love, joy, peace … Michael
I’m a freelance consultant to nonprofits, with an emphasis on research. I’m keen to learn about your organization, and you might be interested to learn more about what I do. Let’s have a conversation. Write to me, people! firstname.lastname@example.org.
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