The nonprofit sector is unlike any other.
We exist to protect the values of equity, inclusion, ethics, accountability, transparency, compassion, human rights, justice and sustainability in society. We advocate for our governments, public institutions and corporations to respect these values. We fight for values-based systems change.
Needless to say this is challenging work – especially when paired with the pressures of fundraising, fiscal prudence and accountability. After spending the resources and energy needed to balance these priorities, there is often little left to look inwards – to ensure we have internalized the values we are asking other institutions to uphold.
While this is something that has long been in the back of my mind while working in the sector, it was during a trip home over the holidays that I had the chance to give it some greater reflection. When visiting with my father, I noticed a pile of wrapping paper on his desk. I asked where it came from and he said it was a ‘thank you’ from one of the organizations to which he donates. At first I thought nothing of it, most charities have a Christmas campaign to thank their donors.
But as I saw the paper go unused over the holidays and make its way to the recycling bin, I began to think about the broader implication of a child-focused humanitarian organization giving away a paper-based product.
A growing threat to children in the Global South is climate change. In many low-income countries, children experience the greatest impacts through rising sea levels, extreme weather, desertification, disease, and food insecurity. And one of our greatest defenses against climate change is carbon offsetting through reforestation. So, if we are thinking in systems – is the give-away of a paper-based product at odds with the values of a humanitarian organization whose majority of work is done in the Global South?
I reflected on my time working in the nonprofit sector and other examples of decisions that didn’t fully align with the espoused values of the organization or consideration of the broader system: giving away wasteful items at fundraising events; using images and stories of children in developing countries without consent in marketing materials; and creating internships that only the privileged can afford.
And I began to ask myself, if we are advocating for corporations and governments to change their practices so that systems change can occur, should we not be asking the same of ourselves? How can we support organizational cultures that will work with intent to enact our espoused values?
Here are four ways nonprofits can move towards being an organization that lives the change it wants to see in the world:
1. Internalize your Vision, Mission and Values:
Most organizations have a clearly articulated vision, mission and values. These are used to communicate with the public and inform programming, but they can also be used to guide how every department functions. For example, if your organization’s vision focuses on child-wellbeing – do you ensure a work-life balance that would best enable your staff to raise healthy and happy children? If inclusion is one of your organizational values, do you have a Board with diverse representation and meaningful participation, including from the communities you serve?
Take Action: Have each department reflect on how the organizational vision, mission and values guide their work and design actions. For example, if equity is one of your values – how will your volunteer managers ensure internship opportunities for people with diverse socio-economic backgrounds? Key performance indicators and targets should be assigned to each action and regularly monitored.
2. Hire for Values Alignment:
As the nonprofit sector becomes increasingly professionalized, hiring to secure specific skills and expertise is important, but hiring for values alignment is still just as important for values-based organizations. And this is true for every position in the organization, from the Board to volunteers. Once your organization has aligned the work of each department with the values of the organization, it will be easier to hire individuals who can demonstrate a commitment to the vision, mission and values through their work experience.
Take Action: During interviews ask questions that will give insight into value alignment with your organization and the position. Ask the interviewee to give an example as to how they enacted one of your organizational values in a previous job. Present a scenario that would require the interviewee to make a decision and ask what considerations they would give to arrive at a decision.
3. Always Think in Systems:
Many of us are familiar with this way of thinking at it applies to program design. However, this approach to planning can also be applied to the design of internal processes and events. Being social and/or environmentally focused organizations, it is important that our decision-making considers the interconnectedness of society, the environment and the economy. As demonstrated with the example of the child-focused organization and climate change, we as a sector cannot address one of these elements without considering the others.
Take Action: Next time your organization is planning an event, campaign, process or policy – take some time to map out how it impacts the broader system. For example, if your organization does a lot of travel, what are some ways you could consider people, the environment and the economy in your planning? Could you actively engage in carbon offsetting activities such as using more telecommunications or encouraging staff to rent the most fuel-efficient vehicles? Could you source local food for catering, and stay in locally owned hotels?
4. Create Cross-Functional Collaboration:
In every organization I have worked for, there have been times of tension between the programming and fundraising teams. Sometimes programming staff can feel the fundraising campaigns are at odds with the organization’s mission and fundraising staff can feel the programming staff are too restrictive in creating creative campaigns. This is not necessarily unhealthy but it can reveal gaps in clarity on the organizational values and how they apply to each department. And when not addressed, it can lead to internal dysfunction and disillusioned staff. By providing opportunity for cross-functional training and collaboration, all staff will have the opportunity to see how the organization lives their values across each organizational function. This will lead to a more aligned organization.
Take Action: Create cross-functional teams during the planning stages. Programming staff should participate in planning for fundraising to help ensure the campaigns do not clash with the programming goals of the organization and fundraising staff should participate in programming meetings to help design scalable and marketable programs.
Each of these steps will lead to the creation of a beautifully aligned organization – one with engaged employees, efficient decision-making, safe spaces for risk-taking and innovation, cohesive teams, and unwavering confidence.
But more importantly, as our sector shines the light on our governments and corporations – asking them to look at their practices to create systems change, we will only be more influential when we are walking the talk.
As Mahatma Gandhi is so often quoted, “Be the change that you want to see in the world”.