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  • Caryn Bosson

Core values: To go forward, state them clearly

I've been thinking a lot lately about the importance of nonprofits having clear, publicly-accessible core value statements. Yes, nonprofits steer towards their mission. They're inspired by their vision. But their core values are essential guides for how to "get there." Just as sailors used to pilot by the stars, nonprofit organizations must navigate by their values -- without them, they can lose their way.

An organization I know recently shelved its publicly-stated core values of "diversity, equity and inclusion" due to internal disagreement. I'm guessing this isn't uncommon in the current political climate. Some board members felt that these shouldn't be core values, while others felt that the mission statement already implies these values and asked, "Why spell them out publicly, and potentially invite attacks?"

So, say that organization wished to embark on a new youth-focused program. Without clearly spelled-out values, could there necessarily be a problem?


For example, without the clearly stated value of diversity, who's to say that the youth recruited for the program wouldn't all be of the same demographic? Why wouldn't they be? Because of the staff's implicit sense of fairness? More likely coming into play would be their implicit bias. How would that sameness affect the program's impact on the community? Most likely it would worsen divisions.

Without the clear value of equity, why should this organization make participation accessible to more disadvantaged participants? Why not ask them simply to pay the fee "everyone else" pays and find their own rides? How about because equality and equity are two different values, and one of them leaves many behind?

And without the clear value of inclusion, what guides this organization to consider involving the participants meaningfully? While equity is "inviting everyone to the party," inclusion is "asking them to dance." What's to stop this organization from marginalizing or tokenizing some youth participants?

Many caring nonprofit leaders share core values without spelling them out. But without a clear, public statement that these are what an organization stands for, there can be a perilous lack of clarity and unity in governing and managing the nonprofit.

Especially when it comes to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion, the omission of publicly declared core values can have serious consequences. The omission can lead to confusion at best -- and at worst, real harm and worsening injustice. That includes undermining the impact the organization was formed to achieve.

Values matter. Clearly stating them matters, too.

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