Tapping the Rock

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 17th, 2020 in Thoughts & Commentary

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When my son was a college junior, his football team won the national championship. Like many sports teams, they had a superstition:  tap the rock.  As the coach and each player left the locker room to run through the tunnel onto the field, they tapped a rock that had been part of the foundation of the original church on the college’s campus. That is not what allowed them to win the championship, but it did give them a common experience and shared belief and focused them on the shared goal of winning.   

Although few realize it, nonprofits have their own totems. As a result of the failure to “tap the rock,” they work a lot harder than is necessary, often ending up working against themselves.  The value of such a rock exponentially increases during uncertain times when so many need and depend upon certainty.  Now would be a good time for nonprofits to permanently bring their rocks out of hiding and start doing some serious tapping.  

Our rock is what Jim Collins, long a recognized expert in business management and sustainability, calls the core ideology — the combination of mission and core values.  These two touch points are both our grounding and our guide. With them as the compass directing our thinking and our decision-making, we cannot go wrong for our organization. Our mission tells the world what we are about, what our work  is; our core values tell the world how we approach our work. Each reinforces the other. They should guide our thinking about such key factors as having an organizational culture that is truly diverse, inclusive and equitable, about returning to the office, and everything  else that we do. 

Yet too many are buried, serving as PR material rather than the bedrock of the organization. 

In order for this rock to do its magic, however, there must be a) a shared understanding  of both the mission  and core values and b) they must be live in the organization. Let’s start with the mission.  

Far too often, the mission is pushed off to the side, lacking a living presence in the day-to-day life of the  organization. It appears when selling is needed, be it writing a grant, pitching sponsor, swaying a donor, rather than serving as the ever-present guide for what is done, how decisions are  made, etc.  

The core ideology is the  life-blood of  an organization. It is what propels an organization forward and allows an organization to negotiate the long haul. As such, it is  imbued in the culture; it is not designed to be a bystander, sitting passively by, but rather it is intended as a dynamic tool for an organization.  

When the mission disappears from every-day life, it fades in people’s understanding and, therefore, in their actions. As it dims, people “remember” it differently, grasping the pieces that they liked the most, that were easiest to remember, that brought in the most money, etc.  As these multiple understandings of a mission develop among both staff and  board, the glue that a mission should provide becomes ineffective, allowing  people to go down different paths as their individual compasses direct.  

When this happens, it is time to re-center the organization and that requires some important conversations:  What does our mission really promise? Is this what we still are doing? Is our mission still needed?  How are we measuring a) adherence to the mission and b) success at achieving the mission? With this all addressed, the last question is:  how are we going to ensure that going forward our mission remains alive and well, guiding us forward?

The same thing is true of an organization’s core values. Too many organizations waste time writing a vision statement while ignoring identifying their core values. Vision statements for nonprofits truly are the work of PR; core values, however, are the impetus for the day-to-day work. When these go dark, they are likely not followed. As a result, we lose sight of how we believe people should be  treated, our standards of performance, and our methods. All these and our shared expectations that are supposed to bind, cease to exist. If these things are truly core values, we must demonstrate their worth  to the organization by holding everyone accountable for them on a daily basis.  When lived, they are part of what makes the glue that binds; when ignored, their adhesiveness breaks down.

Why is this important now?  As every thinking organization in this country is dealing with questions of DEI, struggling with the statements they have written and still and want to write, they have forgotten their rock. They have a very powerful touchpoint right in front of them:  the mission and core values. They are there to help us in the easy times and in times of struggle, to  guide us in our thinking and our actions. It’s time to turn to them for guidance. 

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.