Core ValuesWe are always on the lookout for positive trends, especially from the for-profit space, to incorporate into nonprofit settings. Recently, we have heard a lot about great corporate cultures like those of Zappos and technology companies. When we dissect what makes these companies tick, the underpinning is always core values. These core values are part of the company’s DNA and are put into action by all employees. From online retail to technology companies and everything in between, brands are taking notice and creating values that drive their cultures. An excellent article in Harvard Business Review notes how WD-40 (yes – the company that makes spray lubricant) has created a WD-40 Maniac Pledge, which all employees must recite:

I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I’m responsible for asking. I have no right to be offended that I didn’t “get this sooner.” If I’m doing something others should know about, I’m responsible for telling them.

It is their commitment to “learning as fast as the world is changing.” As WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge aptly put it, “The fear of failure is the biggest fear in the world. We had to go from failure to freedom.” Now that core values are mainstream (and we are moving even faster post-COVID), how can nonprofits use core values to ensure they attract the right employees and create a culture that supports what we call the “holy trinity” – vision-mission-values? They are your source of company distinctiveness and should serve as a cornerstone for all your actions. We have developed an easy and fun five-step process with our clients to help them develop (or refine) their organizations’ core values.

Step 1: Crowdsource Ideas

Have employees create a values board (similar to a personal vision board). Make it a game in which each employee collects quotes, pictures and values that resonate with them. It can be organization-wide or by department. Post the collection digitally or on a bulletin board in a common room so that individuals can review and comment (have Post-it notes and markers available).

Step 2: Deliberate on Optimal Values

Convene employees during a staff meeting or senior managers at an upcoming retreat (with food!) and have them present their ideas for discussion. Have a facilitator (not the CEO) guide the conversation and start collecting themes. The goal is to gather common ideas, not fine-tune or wordsmith. Give each employee stickers (dots) to vote on the top five themes that resonate the most with them and the organization. These themes can be ones that your organization already embodies and wants to reinforce, but they can also be aspirational values that you want to embody in the future.

Step 3: Refine & Finalize Core Values

Ask for staff volunteers to use the current vision/mission, values board, discussion notes and votes to knit together a final draft for further discussion or voting. One new trend that we like – choose among your top themes (e.g., TRUST, SPIRIT, TEAM) to make it an overall acronym for your core values. For example, if you choose TRUST, the T would stand for Teamwork, the R for Respect, etc. Remember – you want this to be unique to your organization and something to energize your leadership and staff. Once finalized, you may want to share this with your board of directors during a board meeting for their input.

Step 4: Take Action to Build Meaning

Once core values are established, do a gap analysis where the organization stands with each core value on a continuum of reality to ideal. Some core values may already be in use. Others may be aspirational – such as Zappos’ “Deliver WOW through Service” – and may need to be defined (e.g., What does WOW mean and how can we have a common definition of WOW?). As in the Zappos case, defining terms used in your values can help ensure that everyone is on the same page as well as giving unspoken beliefs meaning. Ultimately, your core values should be more than words on a wall; they need to be embedded into your organizational habits. A few ways to do this are by using them as a litmus test for hiring, incorporating them into performance reviews and forming a culture committee. To complete this step, you must determine as an organization how you will “live your values.”

Step 5: Monitor, Evaluate & Revisit

Values gain meaning and urgency when they have a direct connection to policies, practices and behaviors. In order to ensure this, add core values to your annual employee survey and ask employees how well they feel the organization is living its values. Ideally, 90 percent of employees should be satisfied with the written values and believe the organization is effective in upholding them. If not, go back to Step 4 and find ways to embed them in a more consistent manner. For example, consider giving awards to employees who “live the values,” so everyone in your organization can see core values practiced and rewarded. Or, when rolling out core values, consider highlighting a value each month with quotes, sayings and pictures. Have the CEO mention it via email and share specific examples that support or do not support that value. Remember to always use stories to drive the point home. And since organizations can change, consider adding or refining values when needed (e.g., many added or reinforced their DEI core value recently).

As restauranteur and business author Danny Meyer so eloquently suggests, core values are “the riverbanks that help guide us as we refine and improve on performance and excellence. A lack of riverbanks creates estuaries and cloudy waters that are confusing to navigate. I want a crystal-clear, swiftly flowing stream.” We would love your input on your core values, how you are using them to drive performance and excellence, and we welcome comments and ideas about our five-step process.


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