Julien Hautcoeur /

This is the second of a two-part column; read the first part here before you proceed.


Effective organizations possess clearly articulated values and behave in accordance with these values. Values form the foundation for all organizational activities, choices and decisions, and actions. Values are management and governance tools that…

  • Help test mission and determine vision and program;
  • Serve as a screen to determine the worthiness, appropriateness, and robustness of all operations;
  • Provide the framework for policies and procedures, program delivery system, communications, and fund development strategies; and
  • Evaluate whether new people align with organizational values and are invited to join.

In their study of visionary companies (Built to Last, 1994), James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras observed that companies last specifically because they have clearly articulated values. These values remain fixed even while business goals and products, strategies, and practices change in response to the changing world.

The most effective organizations continually distinguish between that which is core—unchanging and constant—and that which can and often should change. These organizations discuss how a value affects a particular decision. These organizations identify value conflicts and have a process to make ethical decisions. These organizations regularly assess whether or not behavior is aligned with values. And these organizations ask individuals to leave who do not publicly affirm and act upon the group’s values.


Watch out!

As groups grow and change—when some people leave and new people join—the values still form the foundation for existence. But be wary. Sometimes, the values lose their position in the forefront of the group.

Perhaps the new people and incumbents didn’t use values as a screening device. Individuals may join the group without understanding the values and agreeing to follow them.

Maybe board meetings ignore the values lens during conversations and decision-making. Maybe expediency dominates. Maybe complacency sets in. And suddenly, the organization no longer adheres to its values.

I’ve seen all this. It’s sad and ugly.

I’ve watched organizations kill themselves without articulated and lived values. It makes me angry.

Groups must keep their values alive, practiced, and promoted. This is a choice. This is an intentional act. Values are most definitely not just a piece of paper. Just like plans shouldn’t be shelved, values shouldn’t be either.


Aligning Behavior with Values

Articulating shared values is relatively easy. Finding consensus, particularly around this core, shouldn’t be too difficult. Otherwise, why (and how) would you all have gotten together in the first place? The real challenge is aligning behavior with values. To use the oft-repeated cliché, we have to “walk the talk.”

Once the organization articulates its values, make the values part of the corporate culture. Keep the values alive through behavior, formal and informal assessment and feedback, and through organizational policy, procedure and systems.

Your organization can use several strategies to help people understand and behave according to group values.

  • When you interview candidates for board and staff positions, share the values statement and describe how these values are displayed in the actions of the organization and its individuals. Emphasize that all staff and board members must adhere to these values when working with your organization.
  • Include the criteria “adheres to our stated values” as part of the performance appraisal for staff and board members.
  • Help each person within the organization hold herself accountable and extend that accountability to his and her colleagues. Provide feedback to each other when behavior does not appear to support the organization’s values.
  • Begin meetings by asking attendees to pull out the values statement and read it silently.
  • When a difficult situation arises, review the values statement to set the stage for deliberation.
  • Annually assess the degree to which behavior is aligned with values. Use a survey to compare individual and group behavior to each value. The survey asks respondents to rate their own individual performance and the performance of various teams or groups within the organization.
  • Every three to five years, use the strategic planning process to reevaluate values and assess how well the organization is behaving. Convene group discussions and circulate surveys.
  • Examine organizational policies and procedures to ensure that they reflect values. As necessary, develop new policies and procedures to support values.
  • Compare performance to values when you appraise the performance of staff and volunteers.
  • Periodically, start a board meeting with a quick review of values. At the end of the meeting, discuss how the group’s behavior and actions reflected the organization’s values.
  • When you face a particularly difficult decision, talk about your values first. This discussion will offer you insights into decision-making.


One final note

Sometimes organizations ask me how often they should review and redo their values. My answer: Not often. Not much.

And the same holds true for mission, by the way. This is not an annual editing issue. (Although it certainly is an annual “let’s remind ourselves of our fundamental truths” action.)

I typically review values and mission during the strategic planning process, which typically happens formally every three to five years. I say “formally” because I believe that organizations should annualize their multi-year strategic plan, considering environmental changes and strategies each year.

Organizations don’t (and shouldn’t) redo their values too often. Values are long-term foundational attributes, not ever-changing items that vary based on whoever is in the room at the moment.

You can read more about values—and strategic planning—and so much more in the 3rd edition of my book, Strategic Fund Development: Building Profitable Relationships That Last.



Are you wondering what this has to do with fundraising?

I think of the Donor Bill of Rights and AFP’s Code of Ethical Standards as values statements that the institution should adopt.

I think of fundraising in terms of my piece, “Philanthropy’s Moral Dilemma”—and I think that organizations should consider those values.

I think of social justice and think all organizations should talk about whether or not to recognize donors by gift amounts.