“One of the things I like about our agency,” said the Volunteer Manager, “is that we can do things just because they are nice*.” The faith-based foundation of her agency meant a Return on Values drove their work as much as a Return on Investment.
Her comment stands as a stark counterpoint—or maybe a final holdout—to the pressure that many nonprofit and government agencies face to frame every aspect of their work in business terms. There are business elements in the work of these agencies to be sure. Unlike businesses, however, they do not have the luxury of defining their success primarily in terms of profit. Their investments rarely show returns on a quarterly basis; their returns often eschew quantification.
Nonprofit and government agencies have a broader mandate than profit though. They concern themselves with the public good. Their missions respond to community needs, and their work is an expression of community values. Some agencies make the values explicit. The bigger challenge, however, is making them evident in day-to-day practice.
Balancing Return on Investment (ROI) with a Return on Values (ROV)
A colleague works at a library that includes community engagement as one of its stated values. The team includes a staff member whose title and position description include community engagement. There are roles for the community to serve as volunteers.
However, the volunteer roles are limiting. Volunteers are welcome so long as they show up and do as they are told. The library says it is open to new ideas for community involvement but never seems to follow through on them. The Community Engagement Manager bemoans resistance to the suggestions even when they align with the agency mission and have volunteers ready to pitch in.
If the staff members have to rely on demonstrating an ROI for community engagement, they might stay stuck. There are a variety of ways that the investment pays off, but few agencies have or make the time to identify and translate these benefits into dollars.
This is where a Return on Values comes in. Values offer a form of authority and legitimacy for the actions of the agency that do not have a dollar value. They provide permission to pursue activities and programs for reasons other than money. They elevate the importance of how the work is done as well as what work is done.
Putting Values to Work
Values are often aspirational, but they can be practical guides as well. Here are a few recommendations for putting values into practice.
- Operationalize agency values. In Dare to Lead (p. 190), Dr. Brene Brown talks about the importance of translating values into behaviors. What specific behaviors do the values entail? What does it look like in action? What are examples of times that the team did—and did not—live up to its values?
- Include values on performance assessments. In the Dare to Lead podcast with Adam Grant and Simon Sinek (0:29), Dr. Brown shares that 11% of the companies she works with have operationalized their values but none of them include a values component in their performance evaluations. Assessing values elevates their importance.
- Use values in decision making. I’m a fan of strategic planning processes that create filters (or screens) in evaluating current programs or taking on new ones. Better yet are the ones that prioritize values alongside traditional anchors such as funding, staffing, agency expertise, sustainability, and the like.
- Tap values as a resource for stretching agency practices. It’s one thing to have a program or committee that addresses a value, such as equity. It’s another to assess all policies, programs, or committees against that value. Is the full board concerned about equity or just the DEI subcommittee? Are all programs accessible, welcoming, and inclusive? To whom? Do volunteers or staff or board members tend to reflect a particular demographic? How do policies advance or hinder agency values?
- Put values to work in sticky situations. Sometimes volunteers or donors want to engage in a way that doesn’t align with values. Hannah Mackie at Aspire Oxfordshire observes that many companies want to volunteer in one-off days of service when her nonprofit really needs longer-term partners. It can feel difficult to tell prospective volunteers (who they also value) “no”. But to live their agency values of being person-centered and committed to shared responsibility means that Hannah is clear about the ways that her team can (and can’t) partner with volunteer groups.
- Apply values not just to the program participants or clients but to all those who work with the agency. If the agency values compassion or justice, how does that manifest with staff and volunteers? Do operational policies—and practices—reflect agency values? Where is work needed to close the gaps between value statements and practice?
- Talk about values frequently. Make values visible somewhere other than the web site or office wall. Integrate values into team meetings. Include examples of values in action when talking about the agency’s work.
It can be tempting to overlook the expressive and values-based elelements of nonprofit and government work in a culture that prioritizes what is profitable and practical. Yet, agency values and the public good are what make our work powerful. They remind us of why we are doing the work in the first place. Emphasizing the ways that our efforts yield a Return on Values is a powerful companion and counterbalance to business as usual.
*In this context, nice means having a focus on the things that really matter, rather than the quality of being nice. (Being nice can be problematic, particularly when we focus on the needs and comfort of one group over the dignity of another.)