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Author’s Note: This post is the third part in an eight-part series on the strategic framework of the nonprofit organization — United Way for Southeastern Michigan. Click here to read the full series.

An organization’s core values are just that: the core of the organization’s essence.

These few essential tenets should serve as important guideposts in shaping culture, making hiring decisions, setting strategic direction and influencing the way an organization interacts with its stakeholders. Core values should be the few essential tenets that are non-negotiable in the organization – timeless and unchanging.

When we took our first step at articulating the values of the organization, we embarked on a “Mission to Mars” exercise.

We asked ourselves, “Who are our top performing associates in the organization?” and “Who are our outstanding committed volunteers?”

We wrote about a dozen names on our white board. We then asked, “If these individuals were all together standing on Mars and a group of Martians came upon them, what common values would the Martians see in this group?”

We began to collect words describing their shared attributes: passion, excellence, dedication and so on. Out of a long list of descriptors, we sought out a handful that rang true universally. There were four that stood out to us.

Mission Driven

All of Us



While there were several other attributes that nearly made the cut, these were the ones with which we wanted to start. After some scrubbing, we have settled on the above. When I describe these to individuals who visit United Way for Southeastern Michigan, I do so like this:

Mission Driven:  The passion for this mission, the belief that change is possible when we come together in a collective way, must be at the core of each person.  In essence, one should feel like the mission is in the DNA of the individual.

When we look at those who have had the greatest successes, either as staff members or volunteers, this mission mattered to them. In some way, they woke up and saw that by connecting with United Way, they could carry out some of the most important work of their lives. Their personal mission aligned with the organization’s. Each person gave fuel to another, which allowed meaningful and powerful work to take place.

This drive, this mission, creates a cascading positive impact on everyone who comes in contact with UWSEM and its team.

All of Us:  There is nothing we accomplish alone. Our individual success is interdependent with our collective success. There is me. There is Us. And there is All of Us.

Great progress in this world always happens when individuals connect with others of a shared purpose who move in a collective manner. United Way is at its best when it helps All of Us move in a common direction, creating opportunities to share strengths, talents and resources.

Tenacious: This is quietly known inside the organization as “dog on a bone!”  We understand that when you work on social issues, you have to be in the work for the long haul. You don’t change the human condition overnight. An organization can’t have “flavor of the month” strategies. Rather, when United Way set its Agenda for Change, we committed to the work for the next ten years. We understand we need to be in this work yesterday, today and in the future. While not oblivious to the external changes that take place in society, we know progress comes from a tenacity that is focused on seeing the work through to a positive result

Authentic: When we make decisions, we often ask ourselves, “Is this action authentic to our mission and values?”

We know we move through this world on trust – trust from donors, partners, volunteers, and associates. If our actions don’t match our words, we diminish the likelihood we can fulfill this mission.

I am struck by how many times during our Leadership Team meetings we come back to our values to make a decision. I know as CEO, when I am making the toughest decisions, I always return to these values as the litmus test. They have served us well. We strive to represent these values to best of our ability each day. And when we stumble, we try to help each other correct course.

Other blog posts on Building a Strong Nonprofit

Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 1: Our Mission to Empower Metro Detroit Communities
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 2: What’s a BHAG?
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 4: Crafting a Purpose Statement
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 5: Our Theory Of Change
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 6: Strategic Anchors
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 7: Engagement Pyramid and Cycle
Building a Strong Nonprofit Part 8: Board Roles


2 thoughts

  1. Mike, I’d like to inspire you to add courage to your list. It is an undercurrent to achieving the 4 attributes shown; with meaning. It is what distinguishes UWSEM. It is the fuel that moves good to great.

    It is a gift I learned from you that I protect and nurture.

    1. Bill: I agree. We have ‘courage’ as the next one to evaluate if it now makes the list. I appreciate your insights and encouragement. More importantly, I appreciate what you do each day to make the community better and stronger. MB

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