Many nonprofit organizations don’t have defined (written) core values. Others think they have them, but what they are calling “core values” are actually something else. Still others have them but aren’t successfully implementing them. Correctly conceived and applied, core values are critical to creating a culture of philanthropy.
What are Core Values?
A core value is principle that defines and guides an organization’s internal conduct as well as its relationship with the external world. Core values clarify who you are as an organization by articulating what you stand for. Core values communicate to employees exactly what is expected of them and informs their decision-making and actions. Without core values that support the care and service of donors, a culture of philanthropy cannot exist.
Identifying Your Core Values
The CEO of a large retail company I used to work for frequently reminded employees that our goal should never be to make money, instead we should, “fill the other guy’s basket to the brim, then making money becomes an easy proposition.” Of course, when he said “fill the other guy’s basket” he did not mean literally; he was using a metaphor to remind everyone to focus on customers’ needs. Virtually all successful companies with written core values have one, if not several, core values that relate directly to delivering superior customer service. The centerpiece of FedEx’s core values is their famous purple promise, “I will make every FedEx experience outstanding.” The #1 core value at Zappos, a company famous for their 10 core values is, “Deliver WOW through service.” Nonprofit organizations have two clients – those whom their mission serves and donors (including volunteers), who make their mission possible. Central to creating a culture of philanthropy must be a core value that recognizes the importance of serving donors and meeting their needs. In addition to customer service, other areas that successful companies include in their organizational core values typically address: teamwork, communication, personal growth and learning, employee empowerment, ethics, and community.
The first inclination in tackling a project as important as identifying core values is to develop a team. In a nonprofit organization this might include key leadership and the board. The problem with this approach is that large teams are often dysfunctional and reach watered-down solutions in the name of compromise. To be effective, politics need to be put aside and ruthless decisions about membership must be made; not everyone who wants to be on the team should be included. Ideally, the team should be two or three people at the most.
Looking at the core values of other successful organizations is another good way to begin the process. The organizations do not have to be nonprofits and do not have to have any common ground in order be a valuable resource. Keep in mind that the purpose of core values is to guide the decision-making and actions of employees. Done correctly, they are also an indispensable tool in making the right hiring decisions.
Although this may sound counterintuitive, an important characteristic of well-written corporate values is that they are often open to interpretation. Zappos “Create fun and a little weirdness” indicates that the organization values employee happiness and individuality and encourages employees to be proactive in pursuing these values but it doesn’t tell them how to create fun or what “a little weirdness is.”
According to the website Delivering Happiness, when Zappos set out to identify their core values in 2005, leadership sent out an email to all employees asking them to provide four or five values that were significant and meaningful to them personally, not necessarily having anything to do with the company’s values. Using this information as a springboard, leadership developed their ten corporate core values. They then sent out an email to managers saying, “We’ve been working on a “Zappos Core Values” document, and the first draft of it is below. Please take the time to read it over and email me (do not CC everyone) any suggestions, additions, subtractions, or other feedback. In particular, think about any employees that you think represent the Zappos culture well, and whether what you like about those employees is covered by the 10 core values proposed, below. Conversely, think about any employees that you think do not represent Zappos well, and whether the reason behind it is due to them not representing one or more of the core values below.
This will be a very important document, as we will give the final version to all employees. It will be more or less permanent for all the future years of Zappos, so your input is very important. Please make sure you set aside time to read and think about it.” In this approach, everyone was aware of the process and had input, but it was one or two people who crafted the values and made the decisions.
When is a Core Value Not a Core Value?
Having a written list of core values doesn’t make them core values. To actually be core values, they must be ingrained in such a way that they are used every day in everything an organization, its leaders and employees do. Core values are the guiding principles that direct virtually all the actions of an organization.
Implementing Core Values
To successfully implement core values in an organization requires true leadership. Achieving the title of “executive director,” “president,” “CEO,” or even “founder” typically ensures that one is a good manager, but not necessarily a good leader. Leadership means “the ability of an individual to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organizations of which they are members.” (diffen.com) Leaders inspire, guide, and facilitate others to make a positive difference and to contribute to a larger good. To create a culture of philanthropy, leadership must embrace, enact, and evangelize the core values that support employee focus on philanthropy.
Earlier in my career, I had the privilege of working for a very successful and profitable company that has consistently been on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For (16 years running). Both the CEO and the president were adept at internal marketing (the process of promoting the organization’s mission, vision and core values to employees). They used stories and storytelling to bring the core values to life. We heard the same stories over, and over – and over – again. You might think everyone would come to dread those oft-repeated stories, but they didn’t. Instead, everyone embraced them as their own. It was a company where the customer was king, communications on all levels of the organization were excellent, new employees were thoroughly and formally onboarded and received ongoing training, all employees were empowered to make decisions, and turnover was low. All of this is attributable to good leadership coupled with well-defined and executed core values.
What does a culture of philanthropy look like?
As stated earlier, the most important aspect of creating a culture of philanthropy is having a core value that communicates that donor relationships/partnerships and donor needs are a top priority for everyone and are critical to the organization’s mission. It is then important that the executive director/president/CEO, the development director and other senior management partner in being cultural drivers, acting as role models, cheerleaders and actively engaging in promoting and living the organization’s core values. Everyone in the organization must be committed to the nonprofit’s mission, vision and core values. New hires and board members must share the organization’s core values and orientation/onboarding should be an immersion in core values.
One of the most amazing things about core values that are carefully considered and effectively implemented is that it creates an environment for employee empowerment. The organization hires and keeps people based on their ability to embrace and live the core values. Employees know how to make good decisions because the entire organization is on the same page regarding what’s important and what the expectations are for decisions and actions.
If developing and maintaining donor relationships is a core value and it and the organization’s other core values become the guides for organizational behavior, you’ll ultimately have an organization where everyone acts as an ambassador and relationship builder, everyone can articulate the case for giving, and board members are actively engaged in fund development and share responsibility for meeting development goals.
In the coming weeks I will talk about core values related to customer service, teamwork, communication, personal growth and learning, employee empowerment, ethics, and community and that support success in many types of organizations and why they are important in creating a culture of philanthropy.
Written by Lee Neel, Vice President of The Fundraising Resource Group. The Fundraising Resource Group helps non-profit organizations across the United States with fundraising feasibility studies, capital campaigns, annual giving campaigns, major gift fundraising, non-profit marketing, fundraising training, and other high-impact, high-return fundraising activities. For more about how we can help your non-profit achieve fundraising success, visit our website or call 888-522-1492.