Value Learning in your Nonprofit

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 20th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Whenever I talk to groups about core values—those principles for how you do the work of the mission, and their importance in a nonprofit, I always use an example of one particular The Nonprofit Center’s core value.  I always choose it to really hit home on a particular point that Jim Collins’ makes about core values:  they are not restatements of what’s in your mission; they are independent of your mission.

In fact, they are so independent that one of the questions Collins offers as test of whether something is truly a core value is the following, in my words:  if you quit your job today and decided to start organization tomorrow with a totally different mission/purpose, would you take that value with you?  If you answer yes, then it is a real core value.

I’ve worked in many different kinds of organizations, from a start-up nonprofit in Washington, DC with focus on ensuring children’s literacy, to a nonprofit that worked in the criminal courts of Brooklyn, NY, to a major foundation in New York City, to institutions of higher education in Philadelphia, and my core values have always travelled with me and found a match in the homes of the divergent places I’ve worked.

Two recent conversations, however, are causing me to change my example.  One of these conversations was with a funder and its evaluator about how we could get grantees to appreciate the gift that the funder would be giving all applicants in the guise of its organizational assessment report that the evaluator was creating.  The second conversation is an on-going one with my students in my current class in La Salle’s Masters in Nonprofit Leadership program about how to integrate into an organization’s culture assessment and use of the growing body of research on so many things nonprofit, from fundraising to evaluation to management and more.

Now, I am feeling compelled to exchange one core value example for another.  Because as much as I love using humor as the example of one of The Center’s core values, and one that quite easily and quickly gets across the idea that, yes, really, core values don’t repeat or say in different language your mission, I think I can achieve that and start delivering an even more important message by offering up another Center core value:  life-long learning.

A decade or so ago, talking about “learning organizations” was all the rage; funders were even trying to discern which organizations were truly learning ones and funding them.  But then that chatter went quiet—and, sadly, not because the goal of having every organization be a learning one was achieved.  Far from it.

Indeed, today, the majority of nonprofits operate as rats in the wheel rather than learning and thinking organizations.  And they do so not just to their own detriment but, more importantly, to the detriment of their clients.  This is actually quite ironic, as when asked, “why doesn’t your organization take the time to learn, reflect and then act, the answer is always the same:  ‘We are too busy delivering our mission; we don’t have time.’”

Once again, too many nonprofits expose their ignorance of the value of return-on- investment.  It doesn’t take much to become a learning organization, but it begins with two important items that must be present in your organization.  First, the leader must value and model continual or life-long learning; without this, becoming a learning organization is a non-starter.  Second, there must be an organizational culture that values the possibility of change.  I say possibility because not all that we learn will lead to change; it may lead to affirming that what we are doing is okay, or, even better. But if the culture isn’t open to embracing change, when appropriate and not change for the sake of change, there is no point in thinking about how to move toward a learning culture.

But if the culture is open to change, it doesn’t take much—much time or money—to begin to create a learning culture.  It can be as easy as having one person volunteer to read an article on something relevant to the organization, such as one about a new approach to doing things in your mission area, to the pros and cons of shared leadership, or research on whether playing on guilt helps get donations, and having that person present a summary of the “learnings” that the article highlights at a staff meeting and allowing some amount of full-group discussion.  (This summary can even be distributed ahead of time for all to read.)

It can be a variety of ways to break down the silos in your organization, from cross training to monthly brown-bag lunches (voluntary or mandatory) where the staff group acts as a peer learning circle helping a member(s) think differently about how to address a stumbling block experienced in some aspect of her/his work.  Or the brown bag lunch or staff meeting could involve showing a TedTalk or other video (in whole or in part) on some topic of relevance and having a free flowing discussion afterwards. And it absolutely should involve collecting evaluative data and discussing the outcomes of those efforts at staff meeting to learn what is working, what isn’t at all and what isn’t but could be improved with some changes and using the synergy of the minds of all staff (yes, all staff, including non-programmatic staff) to brainstorm those possible changes.  All of these suggestions, and this is just the start of a list, only take time.

If, however, you want to spend a little money, there are other options.  Organizational subscriptions to relevant professional journals and news sources that are either circulated throughout the staff or left in a common area send an important message:  read and learn, then share.  Require staff who do get to attend workshops outside the organization and conferences to share what they learned at a staff meeting (rather than in a written report that:  a) may well not get read and b) doesn’t encourage discussion).  Adopt the cities’ model of “one city, one book” and have “one organization, one book” on a quarterly or bi-annual basis where the book is read individually by all (but purchased by the organization) and the discussions happen collectively with all.  This, too, is by no means an exhaustive list.

If we want our employees and our organizations to be best so that we can provide the best service to our clients, if we want to be and stay competitive, each and every one of us must figure out how to get off of the rat wheel and onto the continuum of individual and organizational learning—however that looks in your organization’s culture.

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.