How and why your organization’s culture and values matter

December 11, 2018


Ensuring a clear, strong mission statement and equally solid core values are two of the most important policies that a board is ever asked to create, as these are the core ideology  the defining elements  ̶̶  of an organization’s culture. Unfortunately, not enough attention is given to the creation of either, and even less attention is given to the (re)enforcement of both.

A mission statement is not merely a collection of words that a board member inherits upon joining. It is a public promise that every board member agrees to protect and steward through the collective work of the board. It is imperative that before joining a board that both the candidate and the board determine the individual’s degree of commitment to that whole promise.

There is only one degree that should be acceptable  ̶̶  a passionate one. It is insufficient that any board member simply like the mission of the organization on whose board s/he sits; it is unacceptable that any board member not understand fully the purpose and work of the organization. If a board member is to do all that s/he can to ensure that the promises of that mission will be fulfilled, now and in the future, s/he must be able and willing to champion the full promise.

Sadly, boards don’t do sufficient vetting of this before bringing on new members. Too few boards insist that board candidates even witness the mission in action before inviting them onto the board.  Board members who don’t understand what the organization is all about, don’t deeply value the mission, and aren’t willing and able to always do what is best for pushing out and forwarding that mission simply do not belong there.

As previously noted, a mission statement is not window dressing, something that is framed on the wall, highlighted on the website, memorized and mechanically regurgitated. It is the living standard by which everything should be measured.  Conversely, a board’s job isn’t simply to stick with the mission indefinitely, but to regularly monitor the need for the mission and to be willing to ask—and answer—the tough and frightening question:  is our mission still needed?  To do otherwise is hardly ethical.

It is, after all, the job of a board to ensure that the organization is an ethical one; that all affiliated with the organization — from board members to the executive director to staff and other volunteers — are acting in accordance with the ethical standards dictated, and modeled, by board members. Ethical concerns go well beyond careful attention to money, ensuring that restricted dollars are used only for that specific purpose, that money is safeguarded, and invested in companies with values and ethics consistent with the organization’s, etc.  Ethics extend to, among other things, making sure the organization is trustworthy and is delivering not just on the mission promises, but the promises that each program/service makes, as well.

But a board’s job doesn’t stop with concern for ensuring an ethical organization. There are many other values that a board must stipulate, the most important being the organization’s core values.

Core values — those five to seven key beliefs — define an organization’s culture and set the behavior guidelines and expectations for everyone associated with the organization, from staff and board members to clients and donors.

These values are independent of the mission and, in fact, complement the mission by identifying the behavior and beliefs that people will demonstrate at all times while participating in the mission. Core values express the soul of an organization and, as such, must be expected at all times, and immediately addressed when they are absent.  As central to how an organization wishes to do business, core values must be affirmed by including adherence to them in performance assessments, reproving when they are not evidenced by staff, board and others, using them as part of the guide in hiring staff and board alike, and in selecting partners, donors, etc.

Deeply engrained and, therefore, completely shared, core values obviate the need for policies, rules, and regulations that tell people how they should behave. Policies and laws have never changed minds and are extremely slow to change behavior. Values, however, modeled at the top, and enforced from the top down, are what define organizations and move them forward.

One last thought on values and culture and the avoidance of harm. People love to talk about institutional memory, believing institutional memory is culture. It is absolutely not. The right institutional memory is part of culture, but the wrong institutional memory is not. And it is the wrong institutional memory that so many want to protect—the board member who has been there for 25 years and remembers why the particular color was selected 20 years ago for the logo; the staff member who constantly tells people why what happened decades ago justifies continuing to do it now; the people who take us backwards rather than move us forward.

But the institutional memory that is important—those pivotal moments in an organization’s development as opposed to the minutia of the years—is the institutional memory that is culturally valuable. That institutional memory should not reside in the head or heart of any one individual but should be woven into the fabric of the culture.  A culture that cherishes the minutia gives reverence where it isn’t due, and this reverence holds an organization back rather than pushing it forward.  A culture that cherishes the minutia of the past becomes insular, blocking—intentionally or unintentionally—the ideas from outside.