Now More Than Ever We Must Speak The Language of Values

Even a hardened veteran of communal crises cannot help but be impressed with the enormity of the response coming from nonprofit organizations over the past several weeks. Under enormous pressure, social service agencies, faith-based institutions, schools, arts and cultural groups and so many more, have galvanized efforts to respond to COVID-19. And because these efforts only work when we let people know what we are doing, we must pay particularly close attention to our messaging even as we are deeply immersed in the doing.

As an executive coach, professor of leadership and someone who has toiled in the vineyards of organizational leadership for many years, I understand full well that behavior not words or job titles matters far more than the language we use to describe ourselves or our organizations. To be sure, the Coronavirus crisis is a daily reminder that how we behave in the face of this unprecedented challenge matters far more than what we say.

Yet in these very strange times I find myself re-evaluating the need to articulate why we do what we do. That is to say, while nothing is more important than our behaviors in times of crisis, real leadership must include infusing these deeds with deeper meaning by speaking the language of our values.

Whether we are an educational institution gearing up to finish the academic year remotely, a social service agency providing food and grants to newly laid off workers or a faith-based institution hosting online worship, our behaviors are not merely constituent services. They are living embodiments of our values and we should say as much. Universities responding to the needs of confused and frightened students, senior care facilities working hard to provide online connections between residents and their loved ones, adult learning centers, retraining their faculty to learn to teach remotely, are doing these things not merely because our stakeholders want them but because each of these behaviors reflects the values that undergird and inspire our work.

To be clear, it is not enough to invoke “values” as an ill-defined catchall term lacking in specificity or substance. Every behavior that marks our response to this crisis can and should be linked explicitly to the value concepts and mission statements that animate our work.

The learning that continues in each of our communities, unabated across the age continuum, is not merely a fulfillment of state educational requirements – it reflects our sector’s historic commitment to learning across the age continuum. Remote worship services are not merely benefits of congregational membership. They are, in point of fact, manifestations of our dedication to prayer and spirituality and our faith community.   

When nonprofit executives and volunteer boards struggle to minimize the impact of this crisis on their personnel, they do so not merely as employers fighting to maintain a workforce but as ethically driven human beings committed to upholding the laws of best labor practices and the highest principles of humanity. When our social service agencies appeal for volunteers even in an era of social distancing, they do so inspired by the obligation to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and an awareness that we are all created in the image of the divine. 

When our development departments call their senior citizen donors, not for a gift, but to check on their mental and physical wellbeing, they do so not because their commitment to donor stewardship impels them to but because they are guided by a tradition of honoring our elders.

When nonprofit legal organizations and community advocacy groups endeavor to provide the 501 ( c ) 3 sector with the most up-to-date information on relevant federal legislation, they do so not as bureaucrats or policy wonks but because they share a commitment to the greater good. When philanthropists step forward to support emergency fundraising campaigns they do so not for the tax deduction but out of a deeply held sense of noblesse oblige and a desire to give back.   

Leadership is, indeed, about behavior. And we should be proud of the leadership our sector has shown and will continue to bring to this crisis. But we should think seriously about why we do what we do, as well. And we should couple our actions with an unapologetic articulation of the values that motivate and inspire them.

Our colleagues – those still employed and those facing economic uncertainty – need to know about the values that drive our efforts to protect them for as long as possible. Our board members, worried for their futures and ours, must appreciate that what we do is not merely a perfunctory performance of job responsibilities but something transcendent and sacred, even if dressed in quotidian apparel. Our donors and grantors, motivated to do the right thing, need to know that we are bigger than our By-Laws or that which we fill out on a grant application. Invoking the language of values is not a marketing ploy or ill-timed sanctimony. It helps remind us that while deeply immersed in the trenches, our behaviors only make sense within a broader context. As values without action are vacuous, so behaviors without values can become mechanical and deracinated. Getting through the uncertain challenges that lie ahead requires a redoubling of our leadership behaviors and the willingness to contextualize our work within the values we cherish.

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