Sunday, September 21, 2008

Values and Principles - An Organization's Bedrock

When you see these two words - values and principles - is your first inclination to say they are the same thing?  While they share a critical connection – in that you can’t have one without the other – there is an important difference between the two.  And, it might be quite important to know the difference when thinking about your organization.

When we talk about institutional values, we’re talking about strong and enduring beliefs based on assumptions or understandings about what is worthwhile or desirable.  For many nonprofit cultural institutions, values tend to focus on understandings such as respect, excellent, authenticity, community, education.

Here’s the values statement from the Ohio Historical Society:

  • Customer service and focus
  • Respect and opportunity for Society employees
  • Excellence
  • Action- and results-oriented
  • Authenticity
  • Teamwork and partnership

  • Continual learning and improvement

It’s unlikely that these values will change much, if at all, over time.  They are the touchstone, the bedrock, the wellspring for what our institutions stand for.  As one member of a discussion list I subscribe to wrote, “Sometimes we are very aware of values and sometimes they are so latent that we base our decision and work on them without consciously ‘knowing’ them or anticipating their impact on us and others.”

Principles are articulated tenets based on an organization’s values.  They become the operational roadmap by which we recognize and measure how we do things.  They permeate an organization’s work.  The Textile Museum of Canada (Toronto) weds values and principles in the following statement:


    * We are audience/visitor centred and provide an accessible, welcoming environment for visitors, volunteers, members and staff

    * We foster generosity of spirit

    * We believe in community and cultural diversity

    * We respect the contributions of individuals


    * We practice high museological standards as we preserve and promote textiles of world-wide significance.

    * We foster a culture of philanthropy

    * We value a healthy and sustainable organization


    * We are committed to life-long learning

    * We reach out to a broad sector of the population through our core programs


    * We nurture research and artistic creativity through a range of media and activities

    * We embrace a diversity of opinions

Like values, operating principles may be latent.  But don’t you think identifying and understanding your institution’s values and principles can be a powerful motivator to perform at a higher level?  And given this uncertain economic swirl we’re in, doesn’t it make sense to bring even greater focus to what your organization stands for and how you do your work?

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