Blog: Organization & Culture

By: Jessica Wassenaar

It’s natural to look back and reflect upon reaching a major milestone, and Nonprofit Elements has done that as we have approached our first birthday. We’ve thought about whom we’ve become and how we’ve evolved from where we started. Putting into words the culture of a new, small organization has been a challenging but worthwhile exercise. We started with an assessment of our personal values and gathering ideas from employee handbooks that we liked, but a traditional list of core values didn’t feel quite right. Instead, we thought about what we stand for and what we want to promise our clients, our community, and ourselves. In turn, we have come up with a few commitment statements that identify our unique value set expressed in a practical, useful way.

Our Commitment

In providing value to our clients, we bring the very best of ourselves, every time. We expect to build organizational strength, encourage their natural journey and change, and bring awareness and appreciation to their cause and mission. The process to identify our values resulted in three statements that speak to the culture that Nonprofit Elements strives to embody.

Shared Strength

We do exceptional work that transcends the expected.

 Shared Journey

We embrace the journey by listening, adapting, and growing.

 Shared Respect

We care about our work, our clients, and one another as people.

Underneath each section, we have 3-4 bullet points that explain in real-world terms what this means to our staff, our clients, and our community. The final piece is only one page long, making it accessible, easy to digest, and easy to hang up at our desks. Our commitment reinforces our approach to consulting projects and credits our incredible team.

4-Step Framework to Developing Core Values 

Every culture and core value conversation is as unique as the organization itself. Here is the process that we followed for getting towards a culture document that suited our needs.

Step 1:

Meet as a team to develop some general themes and guiding principles. Let an individual or a small (2-3 person) task force take that information and develop a strawman. It doesn’t need to be long – a half page to a page of bullet points is sufficient. In this step you’re looking for statements that describe how you work such as “we are responsive to the unique needs of our clients, offering a versatile and highly-customized approach,” and what you believe, such as ‘there is always room for growth.”

Step 2:

Take the results of Step 1 and organize the bullet points into topic areas (for us this naturally fell into three categories, but there’s no “right” number). Topic areas can be divided by values or situations, but what you’re looking to do is identify themes that occur repeatedly. Summarize these themes into a key word or phrase that encompasses the overall value.

Step 3:

Identify key activities (including work procedures, ways of speaking, key activities, and high-level policies) that bring the value to life in a very practical sense. Think of real-life examples of what this value would look like for the organization. For example, if one of your values is “Integrity,” you can include a bullet such as: “We demonstrate transparency with clients, board members, and each other by sharing not just our results, but also our process.”

Step 4:

Now it’s time to move beyond a thought exercise and (in our case) bring in outside expertise to transform your ideas a usable document that clarifies the key elements. This format is key because it allows staff, board, or clients to clearly and concisely see what has bubbled up to a top-level value. By using outside counsel at this step, we were able to take our emotions out of a very personal process and use fresh perspective to better articulate what we were trying to convey.

Moving Forward with Confidence

This process was incredibly informative and a great exercise for us to engage in as a team. The document we ended up with looked nothing like what we started with. It’s a lot better, a lot more informative, and a lot more useful as we grow, add staff, and take on new projects.

As we embark on the next year of our journey, we’ve renewed our commitment to our community by defining the tenets that we strive for to guide our work, services, and relationships.  While your organization may not be celebrating a major milestone, it’s still worthwhile to invest time in reflecting so that that you can move forward with confidence. We can guide you in this process as part of strategic planning, culture review, or other priority for your team.

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