Insights in Action, Inc.
Strategic Planning that Sizzles -- The Values Statement

By Deborah McGlauflin, President

Is your organization’s last strategic plan gathering dust on the shelf?  Was the news that the next round of strategic planning is about to begin greeted with a chorus of groans and sighs?  These are signs that something has been missing in your strategic planning process – something that has made it less relevant and engaging that it could be.  This article is the first in a series that 1) offers some observations about how strategic planning in non-profit, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often falls short of NGO needs and stakeholder expectations, and 2) makes  some concrete suggestions of ways to add both substance and sizzle to each of the key steps in the strategic planning process.  The next time you are planning to plan, you may wish to adopt or adapt some of them.

 

Developing a Values Statement

 

Developing a values statement is typically one of the first steps in strategic planning and involves surfacing and discussing key aspects of the organization’s culture.  A robust values discussion not only identifies the values that are important to key stakeholders in the organization – staff, Board/volunteers, members and community -- but also brings to light major gaps between stated values and what really goes on in an organization.    The strategic planning process provides the opportunity to develop actions that will improve the alignment between key values and actual behavior.

 

All too often, the values discussion is done rather hurriedly, with the tacit assumption that it’s an easy first step.   This is usually not because values are viewed as unimportant, but more often because values are assumed to be both obvious and shared.   Most values discussions set out to do little more than produce an externally oriented statement intended to show that the values of the organization are transparent and those of the people working in it are aligned with its aims and activities.  While such statements can be somewhat reaffirming and have their uses, they tend to be superficial.  As a result, their usefulness is extremely limited in fostering greater respect and tolerance and in resolving internal organizational conflicts that have values differences at their root.  It is a rare strategic planning process indeed that sheds new light on the roots of existing and potential values conflicts.  All too often, staff cynicism about strategic planning starts during the values discussion with the sense that important gaps between values and behavior are being ignored, either out of haste or out of fear that honest discussion might stir things up and do more harm than good.

 

Here are several suggestions for ways to put some zip in your values discussion:

 

1.     Plumb the depths and surface the gaps. After arriving at consensus around 5-10 core values, go through an exercise where people first rank the approximate priority of these values, if possible bringing the choices to life with some real life scenarios.  This exercise is relevant because many organizational conflicts arise not because of major differences in opinion about values, but because of different assumptions about which values have primacy in a given situation.  Then do a second exercise where people rank each value based on how well they think it is actually enacted in the organization.  Pick the top three most glaring gaps and focus the discussion on what steps can and should be taken to close each gap.  The information from this exercise should be incorporated into the organization’s SWOT analysis, which comes a bit further along in the strategic planning process.  At a minimum, the gaps should be listed among organizational weaknesses to ensure they are included among the key inputs to strategy formulation.

 

2.     Harvest the fruits of diversity.  The diversity movement has helped infused new richness, depth and openness in values discussions within many NGOs.  It has also provided tools for drawing out different perspectives, building tolerance and enabling reconciliation that make such discussions productive and even healing.   Any organization that has staff, Board members and volunteers who embody a diversity of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, and age/gender can certainly make good use of one of the many available discussion guides -- readily found by going online and Googling “diversity discussion guide” -- as a way of enriching their discussion of values both as part of and well beyond the strategic planning process.  A diversity exercise can be a wonderful prelude to any of the other exercises mentioned in this article.

 

3.     Explore, “Why am I here?”  Another way to enrich the values discussion is to acknowledge and explore the different motives and perspectives that underlie Board and staff members’ paid or unpaid work in the organization and the different strengths, values and sensitivities associated with their reasons.  The following four generic types of work orientations may be a useful jumping off point for this discussion (by all means pare them down, revise them or add to them to make sure they correspond to the people in your organization):

         It’s a job. – Some people knew and cared little about the NGO’s purpose when they took the job, saying they just needed the money.  They may or may not have become more connected to the purpose over time, but they still see their job primarily as a paycheck and as coming well behind other things in giving meaning to their life.  They can and usually do take their work very seriously and take personal pride in doing it very well, but with little feeling that what they are doing needs to have any higher meaning or social contribution.  They may become de facto efficiency experts when it comes to doing their jobs with minimal resources and effort.  They often are bothered by wasted time and resources in the organization.

         It’s the mission. – Some people are very connected to the issue underlying the organization’s mission and to the field it works in (e.g. climate change, refugee relief, women’s economic development, child health, etc.).  They tend to become issue experts and to stay in the same or closely related fields for most of their career.  They tend to view anything that does not directly entail or advance work on the issue as an unwanted and unnecessary distraction.

         It’s the sector.  – Some people define their career not in terms of an issue, but in terms of being a professional working in the non-profit/NGO sector – a sector that they view as playing a vital role in society.  Their career may span NGOs working in numerous fields.  They tend to be generalists who develop cross-cutting expertise in such management functions as program planning and implementation, fundraising, evaluation, financial management, etc.  They tend to think that every NGO, regardless of the issue it is working on, should also be an advocate for the NGO sector. 

         It’s an opportunity for personal and societal transformation. – Some people believe that the world will not change until we change individually (e.g. that we will not have world peace until we have personal peace 6.5 billion times).  For them, a job in an NGO provides the opportunity to work on personal and societal transformation at the same time.  They may view themselves as having a career in compassionate action and as being intent on themselves becoming a better and more compassionate person.  This motive may or may not be tied to a formal religious belief.  These individuals tend to care deeply not only about the people the organization helps and serves, but also about the NGO’s relationships with partner organizations and about making sure the internal culture of the organization is consciously and determinedly compassionate.  For example, they tend to care deeply about whether staff are treated well and treat each other well.

 

A very rich values discussion can be based on 1) having staff and Board members identify which of the four work value categories best describes their practical, day-to-day orientation to their work in the organization at this point in time, 2) forming groups corresponding to the categories to identify their respective key values, and 3) having “mixed” group discussions to talk about how the different work value types are likely to respond to a range of real world situations that often bring different values to the surface and can cause tension.  For example:

         What if the organization’s programs are only achieving half their objectives or are taking twice as long to achieve them as planned? 

         What if a budget crunch means that year-end bonuses will be less than expected and delayed until Spring of the next year? 

         What if the Board decides to forego adding an important new program so that it can pay for an extensive program evaluation? 

         What if the outgoing exec is mission-motivated and the incoming exec is sector-motivated?  

         What if some of the senior staff propose that the NGO join the Independent Sector, with all the associated costs of paying annual dues and attending meetings?  

         What if some valued employees are upset by what they see as an overly aggressive organizational posture vis a vis other organizations working in the same field and by a confrontational internal culture, and what if they threaten to quit unless there is organization-wide attention to fostering a kinder and more collaborative organization?

 

Once people have explored the types by discussing such questions, the fourth and final step can be to involve everyone in crafting a values statement that doesn’t only suit the organization in a general kind of way, but that also incorporates at least one key value from each type’s perspective.  Often, NGO values statements only reflect the mission-oriented values of the second type.   Ensuring that your organization’s value statement reflects all work value types represented on your staff and Board can not only greatly enrich the discussion and resulting statement, but can get the entire strategic planning process off to a very positive, open and inclusive start.

 

Of course, it is extremely important that the values discussion is well facilitated so that that the result is increased awareness and mutual respect.  There should be no hint of judgment that one type is superior to another.  The underlying message should be that all four types of motives and perspectives are valid and can co-exist in the organization, and that they all enrich the organization and should be equally valued. 

 

Last but not least, it should be made very clear that this work values exercise engages just one of the complex array of value screens based on multi-faceted and shifting functional identities that each person has and brings to the office each day (e.g. parent, son or daughter, student, retiree, spouse, generation, political affiliation, faith, race/ethnicity, gender, etc.).  To bring this point home, it can be very useful to preface or end the work values exercise with an “I am….” Exercise that lets everyone think about, list and share their many identities as a way of revealing and celebrating this complexity.

 

 

 

There may well not be time enough to include all of the above suggestions when your NGO develops its next values statement, but any one of them can help enliven the discussion and make it more relevant.  It can also help set a tone for the rest of the strategic planning process that is open, fresh, engaging and inclusive.

 

Copyright 2008 Insights in Action, Inc. All rights reserved.

 

 

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