I believe that values are the starting point of an organization, the fundamental foundation, the critical framework.

How do we found a nonprofit organization? A group of people who share the same beliefs get together to fix something…or to provide an opportunity…or to fill a gap…or…

Sure, there is often an initiator. That person is called a founder. But the best founders bring together other people—pretty much immediately. A founder never owns a nonprofit. A nonprofit is a community-based organization, owned by the community.

(Here’s an aside rant about founders: A founder doesn’t control anything! Not even the articulation of values or mission. A founder has no veto power. And once incorporated with a board, the board can fire the founder. Once of these days, maybe I’ll write about being a founder and observing other founders.)

Anyway, back to the issue at hand: values.


What do I mean by values?

A value is an enduring belief that a specific mode of conduct is personally or socially preferable to another. Think of this as a shared code for behaving and operating. A value possesses intrinsic worth, desirability, and utility to the individual or group.

That’s why shared values are the most critical element for building any type of community. And your organization is a community.

Back in 1966, psychologist Louis Edward Raths formulated a seven-step process to determine values:

  1. Prized and cherished. A value is something that the individual or group prizes and cherishes.
  2. Publicly affirmed. The individual or group must be willing to publicly affirm the value.
  3. Available alternatives. A value is not mandated. One must be free to choose other alternatives.
  4. Chosen intelligently. A true value is chosen after intelligently considering the consequences.
  5. Chosen freely. Individuals and groups choose values freely after considering consequences.
  6. A true value means acting on one’s belief. The final test of a value is action.
  7. Repeated action. A true value demands repeated action in a consistent pattern.

I find Raths’ steps very powerful. Use these to test your organization’s values. Definitely use these to define your shared values in the first place.

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Individuals have values

These values guide our actions and judgments. Our values are the standards that influence us as we make choices among alternative courses of action.

And values don’t change much or that often. Our values are relatively permanent frameworks that shape and influence our behavior.


Groups have values, too

Yes, groups have values, too. And what’s an organization but a group?

Individuals get together to form a group. Typically, the group shares common interests and a shared purpose.

But first and foremost, individuals get together because of shared values. And the shared values—fundamental beliefs—aren’t negotiable.

Groups operate best through unity of purpose and action. But even with unity of purpose and action, groups can still struggle, even fall apart, without shared values. Shared values are the essential glue within the group. And, of course, that means the individual’s values must match those of the collective entity.


Start with values

For me, the first thing a new organization does is articulate its values. The values precede mission.

Because groups are composed of individuals, the group must articulate its values to ensure some commonality. Don’t assume that everyone shares the same values.

Group articulation allows the individual to be assured that her or his values fit well enough with those of the collective entity. Think of this as a shared code for behaving and operating. These values then provide a framework that guides the actions and judgments of the group.


Continue with shared values

Of course, we often get involved in organizations that already exist. Now what?

Very simple: Values serve as a screening device before hiring staff or recruiting volunteers. When I’m being interviewed to join a board, I ask about values. But mostly, I watch to see if the organization introduces its values statement before I mention it.

If board or staff candidates don’t subscribe to your values, then don’t invite them to play. Remember, your values are fundamental.