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So, What are Core Values? 

Core values determine how an organization acts in the world, from the formation of its vision and mission to the way it constructs and delivers its programs and services. They are not something toward which an organization aspires; they are what it embodies, what it lives. They must be authentic and reflected in practices and behaviors—from the members of the board, to the staff, to the volunteers.

Sometimes we confuse core values with principles of behavior, like the Boy Scouts oath.   But, they are deeper than that.  Core values capture beliefs in which an organization is rooted, about what is good and right, the essence of its brand, and the norms that guide its business practices—values that compel the organization, and its stakeholders to do great work. They are distinctive to the organization and differentiate it from its peers.

In the perfect world, every board should take time to identify its organization’s core values.  And when done, they should post the values around the boardroom at every board meeting, in the public areas of the organization, in the staff lunchroom, on the website, and in publications.  By understanding and attending to an organization’s core values, organizations foster the right culture throughout the organization.

I’ve had board members tell me that their organization’s core values include honesty, flexibility, raising money, serving more people, being receptive to change, community service, and so on.  These are important principles but most often not core values.

Organizations must be very selective when choosing core values.  If you choose too many or choose values shared by several other organizations, you dilute your identity and lose an opportunity to convey your brand.  Your core values set you apart.  They are an opportunity to make a memorable statement.

So, you are probably asking, why isn’t community service a core value?  Or honesty?  Let me ask, among all of the charitable organizations in the sector, which shouldn’t be invested in community service?  Which shouldn’t be honest? Or transparent? Which shouldn’t be focused on raising money or serving people? Which shouldn’t be receptive to change?

Identifying core values takes a soul-searching, open-minded debate among the organization’s leadership team.  You need to dig in and ask, “What is at the core of our identity? What differentiates us and defines our essence and purpose?  What values will immediately communicate who we are to anyone who reads them?”

Several years ago, I worked with an organization whose mission was to help the elderly and less fortunate maintain and repair their homes.  Working with a board of only a handful of individuals, this small band of volunteers came up with the most memorable core values I have encountered in all of my work over decades:  dignity and restoration.  These two words define their essence and purpose.  Who would have thought fixing a toilet or repairing a roof had anything to do with dignity and restoration…  until you take a closer look.

These devoted volunteers understood that people take pride in their homes, that when they cannot afford to repair them it effects their sense of well-being.  And so, they understood that they weren’t just repairing homes; they were restoring lives.  And those truly are core values.

AUTHOR - James Mueller

Jim Mueller is president of James Mueller & Associates LLC (JMA), a national consulting firm that provides services in the areas of organizational development, governance, and philanthropy. Follow Jim on LinkedIn.