What’s at Your Core?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 13th, 2015 in Thoughts & Commentary

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If you know me, you know that I am a huge fan of Jim Collins and identification of an organization’s core ideology: core purpose + core values=core ideology. Students of Collins know that it is the presence of and adherence to an organization’s core ideology that differentiates the successful from the not. As he and his colleague in research, Jerry Porras, wrote in a Harvard Business Review article almost 20 years ago, “Companies that enjoy enduring success have core values and a core purpose that remain fixed while their business strategies and practices endlessly adapt to a changing world.”

In the nonprofit sector, an organization’s core purpose—its mission—is the easy part: it should be obvious and stated, and you didn’t become an organization and declared tax exempt without some semblance of it. Additionally, a mission statement should be directional, but, as we know, it isn’t always so, as too many missions are poorly designed and written, thus lacking the ability to guide any decision making, and should not, again as we too often find, have multiple interpretations amongst board and staff.

Core values, on the other hand, are a different story. In many respects, core values are what make or break an organization – its heart and soul. I’m talking about the core values that truly lead you and everyone else associated with the organization in how they conduct themselves and do their business. The identification and defining of core values should never be an academic exercise, but rather a thorough and open conversation leading to the agreement of those five to seven principles that define how you will conduct your purpose. Sadly, I am repeatedly struck by the failure of organizations to codify and heed their own core values and their willingness to operate in the ultimate sphere of hypocrisy while ignoring the consequences of so doing.

Once, I allowed The Nonprofit Center to make that mistake with a funder who wanted us to continue with some work we were already doing. But, there was one problem: the funder didn’t prescribe to one of The Center’s core values. Whenever I talk to folks about core values and I reach for an example to demonstrate how core values work in an organization, I reach for this example. The core value in question: humor. It is not that we take our work lightly, or think our clients comical, or think life’s a laugh a minute; it is that we love laughter, the creativity and wit needed to bring laughter into a community and its physiological and psychological palliative powers.

We value the life – and community – enhancing powers of laughter and sharing a laugh with others, and seek to ward off the moribundity of a humorless – environment. Each time a staff member had to interact with this funder, she and The Center paid the price, and the pallor remained for hours thereafter. We all swore never to violate a core value again having learned first-hand the costs of not appreciating the force of core values, even one that might appear so seemingly trivial. Fortunately, no one outside The Center saw or felt the slip, as it was bad enough we did.

There is no doubt that in our sector, mission first draws a person to consider joining our community. But immediately after mission, it is core values – even if people don’t label them as such. Folks in our sector don’t want just to work for the right what; they also want to work for the right how – how are we going to do the work? How are we going to treat people along the way? What are going to be our standards for doing that work? What will we defend with our last gasps? What are the sacred cows that define the very essence of our how?

Increasingly, and not just in the nonprofit sector, potential employees are exploring both the core purpose and the core values in assessing a potential work place, and the latter are coming up more important. One of the few positives in the proliferation of the nonprofit sector is it is ever increasingly easy to find places to work that share your views on core purpose. The differentiation then falls to the core values and the extent of their implementation. Thus, while it is absolutely the what and the how hand in hand that define an organization, it is the core values that ever more so is the key influencer. When a nonprofit loses its hold on its core values, it loses its soul. And no one wants to part of soulless community.

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.