Doing No Harm: How Values Misalignment Could Hurt the Nonprofit Sector


By Torrey Peace


If your organization experienced a “values audit” right now, how would it score?

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, I had observed a disconnect between what organizations and institutions SAY versus what they DO.

And this is most disconcerting in the nonprofit sector.

You would think that in the nonprofit sector there would be careful alignment between an organization’s “values” and what was done on the ground.  This alignment is what I am terming “reflective development,” or development work that reflects an organization’s values.

But walk into the office of an International NGO working on a drought and you may find a faucet that has been leaking for weeks. Or what about that Nutrition Meeting where doughnuts are served?  Or the organization that promotes being environmentally conscious and then uses plastic disposable cups in all their gatherings?  And we won’t even go into the scandals around sexual abuse and managers driving their staff to depression and suicide.

When it comes to some of the “softer violations” between an organization and its values, I don’t think they are done deliberately.  It’s not like the leaders are purposely neglecting leaky faucets and alternatives to plastic cups.  It’s more that there’s a mindlessness and complacency around it.

Now that we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an even bigger push to use the Internet.  This means more people are online, and that means more of the world is watching and posting, including the communities where we work.

This is a great opportunity to pause and reflect.  Okay, I know pausing is hard to do in the aid world, but this is important.  Ensuring we are “walking our talk” is another way of preventing further damage or creating more harm.
It is the equivalent of cleaning up a road while the hole in our trash bag leaves a long trail behind us. If we don’t repair that hole, what’s the point in moving forward?

Of course there are ways the nonprofit sector can get back on track with “walking their talk” when it comes to values.

The first is to be clear what those values are and what they look like in practice.  What does the everyday behavior behind “trust” look like for example, or “creativity” or “Integrity”?  Defining how the office cleaner, driver, and finance officer contribute to those values is an important part of practicing reflective development.

The second way is to involve staff at all levels in observing any disconnect between an organization’s values and what’s happening in the office.  Setting up reward systems that reward positive examples of values in practice can demonstrate the organization is serious about its values and also encourage desired behavior.

Hopefully the staff within the organization are on board with that organization’s values in the first place, but I have also observed staff working for a nonprofit that advocates for women’s rights and they don’t necessarily believe in providing women those rights.  This is a red flag and should be corrected.  How did that staff become hired in the first place?

Which brings us to the third way that an organization can practice reflective development.  Using caution with the hiring process and ensuring beforehand a candidate is in alignment with an organization’s values and what it practices is very important and unfortunately overlooked.

Taking advantage of trial periods with candidates to see if their attitudes and behaviors are indeed what the organization is seeking can help ensure the right candidates.   A strong orientation around an organization’s values, what they look like for that person’s role and how that person can help contribute to practicing these values is also essential.

Finally, accountability is often lacking in the aid sector.  Holding staff accountable for their behavior, for example when it directly violates an organization’s values, is what will make the difference between broadening our impact and moving backwards.

In the end, those organizations that take the time to practice “reflective development” will be the ones that win the proposals, motivate their teams and move closer to fulfilling their mission.  It’s worth becoming more mindful about improving our value audit scores, and truly reflect what we want to see in the world.

Torrey Peace is a Leadership Coach, Guide and Trainer for Aid Workers