Nonprofit Values

Way too often I hear from disgruntled nonprofit staff who feel their organization doesn’t live up to its own nonprofit values.

They talk a good game; they just don’t walk it.

Alas, I know from whence they speak. Having worked in the nonprofit trenches for 30 years before hanging out my teaching/coaching/consulting shingle, I too experienced environments that treated their employees rather shabbily. 

Bear in mind that shabby treatment doesn’t have to be blatant abuse. It’s more insidious than that. It’s essentially ‘not honorable or fair.’ The condition of the treatment is poor due to ‘lack of care.’

Does your nonprofit culture show a lack of care?

It does if:

  • You’re nicer to your clients than you are to your staff.
  • You’re nicer to your donors than you are to your clients or staff.
  • You think short-term rather than long-term.
  • You don’t invest in staff development.
  • You don’t allow honest mistakes and subsequent learning.
  • You don’t collaborate, either internally or externally.
  • You, at best, only pay lip service to diversity, equity and inclusion.
  • You fail to demonstrate generosity and compassion with all your stakeholders.

Be honest with yourself, especially if you’re in a position of leadership with even a modicum of power and authority to shift your corporate culture towards greater generosity, abundance and gratitude. And, if you’re not, consider sharing this article or this checklist with someone who is.

The Nonprofit Values Conundrum

Perhaps at one point your organization engaged in a values building exercise. Perhaps you have these neatly listed on a piece of paper that lives in your employee handbook, or maybe they’re even posted somewhere on the walls of your institution. But… how are you living these nonprofit values? And do they embrace a philanthropic culture?

Culture of philanthropy (COP)’ – ‘love of humankind’ — is a real thing, and especially powerful when leading through a crisis.

If you lack shared nonprofit values, you’ll have difficulty navigating hard times. How you respond to the pandemic, the upheaval of social justice movements, climate change, environmental disaster, and other crises top-of-mind for your constituents will shape your destiny and impact your resilience.

Your crisis response is most visible in your marketing, and your embrace of deep-rooted (or shallow) human values will shine through.

I’m a fan of Mark Schaefer and frequent reader of his Grow blog. His The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world, and nonprofits can learn a lot from their for-profit colleagues. Especially when it comes to marketing. In the midst of the times we’re in, Schaefer’s article “How corporate values guide marketing through a crisisstruck a chord.

I’m often surprised by how for-profits constantly struggle to sell meaning – even partnering with nonprofits to embark on ‘cause related marketing’ initiatives – while nonprofits have meaning to spare, yet often fail to capitalize on it. Schaefer’s article is about connecting to customers through values-based marketing.

Why? Because that’s what customers want.

Your constituents want to see their best selves reflected in their decision to affiliate with you.

People can feel small and helpless as individuals. Problems can seem insurmountable. And that’s where your nonprofit steps in. By engaging with you supporters can feel larger and impactful. They can accomplish things they could not achieve on their own. They can actively live their values through you.

How does your crisis marketing show people you’re offering the meaning they seek?

“[E]xpressing shared meaning with customers through corporate values is a powerful path to loyalty. Research conducted by Edelman showed that 67 percent of consumers will try a brand for the first time solely because they agree with its position on a controversial topic, and 65 percent said they will not buy a brand when it stays silent on an issue they consider important.

The study, which polled 8,000 people in eight countries, found that a company’s position on a social issue can drive purchase intent just as much as the features of a product. Nearly a quarter of all consumers will pay at least a 25 percent premium when their values align with a brand, and 51 percent will buy the brand exclusively based on shared values.”

— Mark Schaefer

I share the above quote with you not so you can use it to ‘sell’ a business on why they should sign up for a ‘cause marketing’ campaign with your nonprofit. Sure, you can do that. But this article is about more than ‘one off’ transactional approaches to marketing. You must do much more if you want to develop true donor loyalty.

Does your authentic embrace of love of humanity shine through?

Trust me, it won’t if you’re simply pandering by mouthing whatever sounds ‘woke’ at the moment. Authentic culture bubbles up from the bottom and cascades down from the top, creating a wash of shared meaning. 

The most effective marketing expresses your lived, deep-seated, communal culture; it is not a ploy.

“Advertising is dead. Over. Culture is the new media. Don’t buy an ad. Put your brand’s belief into the culture.” 

Faith Popcorn 

The Power of a Shared Culture of Goodwill and Philanthropy

Culture is your North Star. Goodwill and culture of philanthropy are your secret weapons. They will lead you through the darkness and guide you towards the light. Or… it can go in the opposite direction. The choice is yours.

  • Is your organization driven by love of humanity, or ego?
  • Is your organization generous or stingy?
  • Is your organization authentic or fake?
  • Is your organization transparent or deceitful?
  • Is your organization kind or uncaring?

It’s important not only how you answer these questions, but how others answer these questions. If you’re perceived differently by different stakeholders, your culture is not shared. And no matter what you say in your marketing, people will read between the lines.

When it comes to responding to folks in a crisis (or really any other time), one disgruntled staff member can destroy the hard work of many development staff. All it takes is a gruff response from a receptionist… a volunteer coordinator who doesn’t listen to volunteers’ needs… a program staffer who doesn’t return a phone call… a board member who complains about the organization to a colleague… one person who says “that’s not my job,” and so on.

Marketing must connect to what people within and without the organization sense.

Your values are not what you say. They’re what people see, hear, touch, smell and taste.

When everything people sense is reflected in what you say, then there’s power in your words. Absent a shared culture of philanthropy, they’re just words.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

— Maya Angelou, American poet

“When we give our employees benefits like family leave or paid time off, but work right through them ourselves, we’re telling them that work takes priority over family, regardless of our written policies.”

— Scott Monty, strategic communications and leadership advisor

People Reward Work from the Heart

Giving is ruled by the heart. People are moved by what touches them. Increasingly, people are mindful of the impact they’re making, informed by the stories they see in the news. This is seen in the movement towards environment, social and corporate governance (ESG) criteria that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments.

  • Environmental criteria consider how a company performs as a steward of nature. 
  • Social criteria examine how it manages relationships with employees, suppliers, customers, and the communities where it operates. 
  • Governance deals with a company’s leadership, executive pay, auditsinternal controls, and shareholder rights.

How does your nonprofit stack up when it comes to these criteria?

When you can help folks live their heartfelt values, they will invest with you.

Not Living Your Nonprofit Values Erodes Trust

Trust is the foundation of all lasting relationships. When there is a disconnect between what you practice and preach, it’s called making empty promises. Trust suffers as a result.

Trust begins at home. 

If you want people to believe your marketing, your own people must believe your marketing. 

Examples of companies where trust suffers include Google and Facebook. They claim to stand for something even many of their own employees no longer believe they stand for. As examples of companies where trust is a core competency, Drucker cites values-based companies like Patagonia, G.E. Appliances, Michelin and Nike. He notes people will trust any message Patagonia delivers relating to the environment because they know it is their core DNA. 

Nonprofits that come to mind with trust as a core competency include the United Way, Feeding America, Salvation Army, American Red Cross, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, and Habitat for Humanity, among others.

Where do you think your nonprofit ranks (if not worldwide or nationwide, then in your community)?

If you don’t think you rate highly, engage in behaviors that demonstrate credibility:

Bottom Line

Your culture affects your revenue. 

  • When your nonprofit values are fuzzy or shabbily applied, your culture suffers.
  • When your culture suffers, and people in your orbit are unhappy, your marketing suffers.
  • When your marketing suffers, your revenue (earned and unearned) suffers.

This impact on bottom line revenue should, once and for all, move Culture of Philanthropy – shared and lived values of abundance and generosity — from the ‘nice to have’ to the ‘must have’ column.

If you don’t nurture a philanthropic culture within your organization, you’ll leave money on the table. If you don’t consistently walk the talk of your values, you’ll leave money on the table. This is money that could help more people, animals, places and things. Or that could help those you’re already reaching in qualitatively better ways. 

That’s an impact worth considering.

Download this Culture of Philanthropy Checklist loaded with action tips to determine if your nonprofit has a culture of philanthropy in place and ways to get started creating one.

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Fundraising Coach at Bloomerang
Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE is a fundraising visionary with 30+ years frontline development work helping organizations raise millions in support. Her award-winning blog showcases her practical approach, which earned her the AFP “Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year” award. Claire runs “Clairification School” online, teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, and is a regular contributor to Guidestar, NonProfit PRO and Maximize Social Business.