What are shared values, and how are they related to ethics?

October is set aside by The Association of Fundraising Professionals (A.F.P.) as ethics awareness month. Throughout the month, A.F.P. will share various articles and training on philanthropy ethics, and the role ethics have in non-profits.  Today I would like to join in the conversation by discussing the differences between ethics and values and the role shared values can play in your organization's long-term success.

Many years ago, I worked with an organization going through some significant changes to its program, vision, and mission. From an organizational standpoint, leadership felt these changes were necessary to adapt to the changing needs of society and increase the number of individuals they served. However, not everyone agreed with their decision. Some alumni and long-term donors of the program felt isolated, betrayed, and that their opinion no longer mattered. The bottom line was they no longer believed the organization aligned with their values, and they were leaving the organization.

Ethics is an agreed-upon set of standards used to determine right and wrong in any given circumstance.  A community or group often sets these principles. For example, your place of work may have ethical behaviors which employees must abide by. These standards are often referred to as a code of conduct. Ethical standards at work may include transparency, accountability, honesty, and respect. For example, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (A.F.P.) has a code of ethics. Ethics, or guiding principles, are constant and are the same for everybody involved. Living by ethical principles is a continual process of aligning your actions with consistent behaviors.

Values, on the other hand, are what individuals prioritize as crucial in their lives. Philosophy's values include your background, culture, race, religious preference, political views, and philosophy on life.  Values are personal beliefs that govern the way you act or behave.  Values are unique to everyone and may change over time, based on additional information or life-altering events. Values, based on personal beliefs, determine how you accomplish your work.

Conflict occurs when there is a  perceived difference in an organization's ethics and an employee or stakeholders' values. I emphasize the word perceived difference because these differences can negatively impact your cause, whether based on fact or emotion. When was the last time you, or an acquaintance, switched jobs because it was "no longer a good fit?" What are some of the reasons donors have given you for no longer supporting your cause? Often, "no longer a good fit" means the individual no longer believes their ethics and values align with the organization's ethics and values. Many individuals use ethics and values as a filter to determine their relationship and standing with a cause. Individuals are often more likely to stay involved and engaged in organizations that align with their personal beliefs and values.

 An essential part of aligning shareholder values with your cause is creating shared values. Shared values are beliefs organizations, and individuals have in common with each other. Creating shared values does not require organizations to change or adapt their code of conduct or values to meet everyone's needs. However, it does mean organizations must identify shared ideals most stakeholders can rally around and support. In the example, I shared above, while some stakeholders did not agree with the organization's decision, they continued to support the cause because of the shared value of helping more clients benefit from the program.

Shared values increase employee and donor retention and satisfaction, productivity, overall wellbeing, and happiness. Shared values also create stakeholder buy-in and commitment to your organization's mission and vision and create loyal supporters of your cause. According to The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, "shared values are the foundational pillars for building productive and genuine working relationships. Credible leaders honor the diversity of their constituencies, but also stress their common values. Leaders build on an agreement."

Here are three things you can do to build shared values:

  1. Understand what your stakeholders value and appreciate about your non-profit. For example, why do donors give to your cause?
  2. Share your organization's values and provide opportunities for your staff to share how their values align.
  3. Provide opportunities to create shared values. When faced with a problem, rather than trying to solve it on your own, engage your stakeholders in finding a solution that aligns with your organization's values.

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