The Values Retreat: A Love Letter

by Josh Jacobson

This past Monday, I had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite activities: facilitating a values retreat. Of all the ways in which Next Stage engages in facilitation, none is more spirit-lifting than bringing together the board, staff and key stakeholders of a nonprofit to talk about their “why” and the organization’s “how.”

I thought I’d take a minute to unpack why I think it’s so important, and why it gets me so charged up.

Values & Guiding Principles

Our retreat focuses on prioritizing a set of values and defining a set of guiding principles for a nonprofit organization.

Values are the foundational beliefs that anchor a nonprofit’s work. Beyond mission, vision and programs, values are the nonnegotiable characteristics that best describe who we are and why we exist. These words describe the things that matter most to our organization, and should be reflected in our work every day.

Guiding principles are “applied values” meant to govern action and define a brand of those actions for people who interact with the organization.  Values without the corresponding guiding principles they inform are less meaningful, like setting a goal but not making it measurable.  They become just positive-feeling words without the teeth to make them real.

If your organization already has a set of values, this exercise can seek to validate them. Sometimes values were chosen by a founder or by a group of people at another point in time, and it can be meaningful to test whether they remain core to the organization.

There are many values an organization can choose from (e.g. excellence, integrity, professionalism) but translating them into guiding principles is what makes them real for everyone involved with a nonprofit. It also requires more than just the board of directors. This retreat is ideal with 20+ participants to include members of governance, staff, core volunteers and other very engaged stakeholders.

Dotmocratizing Values

Our retreat begins with a fun, participatory exercise. Next Stage works with a nonprofit’s leadership to settle on a list of 30-40 values relevant to the organization. These values are printed on 8.5 x 11 paper in a large font, one per sheet, and hung side-by-side on a wall. Retreat participants are given five circle stickers to prioritize the values that they feel are most important to the organization. They are also given one special sticker to put on the value they feel is most important. After being given this direction, participants are let loose to get out of their seat and “vote by dot.” It is called dotmocracy, and we love it.

It is really interesting to see how people treat this exercise. Some particpants go right up to the wall and quickly assign their dots. Others hang back and watch it all unfold before deciding how to vote, sometimes breaking ties or teeing up a value that has gotten less attention. We often use different colored dots for different sets of stakeholders (e.g. board vs. staff) so we can see trends in how groups might think differently. It usually takes about ten minutes for a team of 20+ to engage in the exercise.

Once complete, we help the participants narrow the values to a set of roughly seven. There are typically 3-4 values that are clear winners in the room, with a second tier where there may be a farily even set of dots. It might be possible to combine some values, helping the process along.

Establishing Guiding Principles

The real magic is evolving the value concept into a guiding principle, which are typically short, pithy statements that encapsulate how a value is applied in practice. Guiding principles serve to help those engaging with the organization to understand its policies, procedures and decision-making framework.  Guiding principles inform the notion of organizational growth and provide a framework for on-boarding new constituents.

As an example, an organization with a value of “professionalism” is likely to have a guiding principle that speaks to “championing professionalism in all aspects of the organization’s programming, operations, communications and community engagement.” That guiding principle serves as a backbone for a set of guidelines in each area of focus (e.g. “financial reports are generated monthly to monitor progress), all in service to the guiding principle regarding professionalism. We often work with organizations to translate guiding principles into processes, policies and procedures that make them tangible.

Guiding Principles & Intentional Culture Development

At Next Stage, we believe in a simple equation: Values + Processes = Internal Culture & External Brand. Values are at the core of a nonprofit’s identity, and reinforcing processes need to be put in place that foster intentional outcomes.

And that extends beyond programming to the entirety of the organization. Nonprofits are typically better at ensuring values-aligned programming than they are in building an intentional organizational culture that reflects similar values. So while a nonprofit might champion personal development to a program participant, that nonprofit might not be providing its staff with the same opportunities for personal growth.

This retreat is typically galvanizing and the starting point for strategic planning and visioning. Want to discuss how a values retreat might unlock your own nonprofit? Give me a shout.

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