August 26, 2020

Values: Defining a Nonprofit’s Ideology

By Samantha Sadiv, Staff, Search, Transition & Planning

Values: Defining a Nonprofit’s Ideology Nonprofit & Social Sector

Along with mission and vision statements, nonprofits build the foundation for their work on a set of core values that lay the groundwork for the impact they desire to achieve. Core values are the bedrock beliefs on which an organization refuses to compromise, as it structures its goals and executes its mission. While the strategies deployed to achieve organizational goals may change due to internal capacity or shifts in the environment, values serve as the backbone of an organization’s work, defining its identity and shaping its plans of action. Alignment on values ensures that staff, board members, and the community as a whole understand the ideology of the organization and what it stands for.

Rather than describe what an organization does, values should capture the reason for why and how it does what it does. For this reason, values require context to inform stakeholders about what they can expect from an organization in its mission delivery. While mission and vision statements are unique to each nonprofit, giving it a niche in the community, multiple organizations can have the same values in common: how each implements those values will distinguish it in the community. So as not to confuse the mission statement, vision, and values with one another, remember that mission is the “what,” vision is the “why,” and values are the “how.” It may be tempting to identify values based on key words from the mission statement that relate to the nonprofit’s service area, such as “housing,” “development,” “health,” and so on. Instead, each value should have relevance to every aspect of the organization’s operations: the way it designs programs and delivers services; the way it collaborates with partners and appeals to funders; the way it recruits and retains staff and board members; and the way it develops a healthy internal culture. The principles that underlie the organization’s foundation, such as “access,” “opportunity,” “integrity,” will reflect the values that the organization strives for every day.

While values remain constant amid day-to-day events, an organization has the opportunity to rephrase or redefine its core values based on shifts in the environment both internally or externally. A change in leadership, including a new executive or incoming board members, may add fresh perspectives on how the organization executes its goals and, therefore, how it brands itself. Without modifying the mission statement, the new stakeholders may suggest new values that reflect their own leadership styles, such as “communication,” “partnership,” or other terms that indicate a new approach to the organization’s work (the “how”). A planned board retreat or strategic planning process are optimal times for board and staff members to assess and reconfirm the organization’s existing values, and discuss if and how to evolve them.

Unplanned, or unexpected, changes in the external environment also give reason for organizations to realign their values to ensure they address and respond to evolving community needs. Devastating events this past spring and summer illuminated and demanded attention to systemic racial injustice that continues today. In response, many companies, including nonprofits, corporations, health facilities, and educational institutions, released statements that testified to their stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Accompanying those statements must come a series of intentional undertakings that reflect values embedded in DEI. An organization must do more than point to or believe in its stated values – it must invest in them. Living DEI values extends beyond crafting a formally written memo condemning injustice and expressing hope for an equitable future. These values must appear in everything the organization does, from conducting fair hiring practices to providing equal pay to elevating voices of individuals who come from all backgrounds. Prioritizing these ideals will confirm the organization’s commitment to serving the community without compromising on its values.

When developing programs or forging relationships, values will serve as an unwavering guide to help team members make decisions that align with the organization’s ideology about why it exists. Keep in mind that values are more than an organization’s aspirations or hopes for the future. Rather, they are root causes and motivations for its daily activities. Staff and board members must have a firm awareness of what the values mean and how to execute on them through their engagement with organizational activities. Service delivery may change in response to community needs or operational capacity, but the ethics that inspire the organization’s work remain constant in its fight to advance the mission and achieve its vision.

If you have any questions about this article or how Marcum LLP’s Search, Transition & Planning team can help your organization with strategic planning or executive search, please contact partner Karen Schuler at karen.schuler@marcumllp.com.