This is the second in a series of posts inspired by “Doing Good in the 21st Century”, a joint project with Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy to explore what the sector will need to succeed in the new reality.
This post is co-authored by Vance Yoshida and Melissa Mendes Campos.
When we asked emerging leaders last spring How must the social sector adapt to succeed in meeting 21st Century challenges and opportunities? we handed each a long list of issues and trends that are shaping a “new reality” for nonprofits and foundations. Every day, we and others like us are exploring these trends and their implications for the field, such as the emergence of new players, new models, and new ways of working.
Yet when today’s up-and-coming social sector professionals told us what they thought it would take for organizations to succeed in this new reality, we were struck by how some of the most powerful answers brought us not to the latest cutting-edge trend, but back to the fundamentals.
Vincent Pan, Executive Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action talks about organizations as “vessels” we use to move our values. He says that while organizations need to be able to recognize and respond to significant trends, it is more important to simply get comfortable with change itself. Yet he emphasizes that even in the midst of constant change, it is our values — what we “stand for” as organizations — that provide the bearings to carry us through.
Trista Harris, President of Minnesota Council of Foundations describes the importance of clear vision in guiding an organization’s work and the flexibility to “adjust your sails” along the way to adapt to the winds of change. To extend her maritime metaphor, this means distinguishing the what (or the ultimate destination) from the how (or the route taken to get there).
These two leaders remind us that when faced with rapid change, it may well be the fundamentals — an organization’s values and its vision for advancing them — that are most critical for success.
The vessel/ship metaphor common to both leaders’ statements is a fitting one. The social sector is on a journey, and an organization’s vision and values provide the compass needed to make that journey a successful one.
For example, Asian Health Services (AHS) is a community health center based in Oakland, CA that has served the area’s large Asian and Pacific Islander population for close to 30 years. In that time, it has come to be valued as a partner in the community, and it is by living its values that it not only continues to earn the community’s trust but has also been able to successfully weather major changes that have reshaped health care over the years.
AHS has built its entire way of working around a core value of responding to community needs. It recognizes the importance of listening to the community, creating opportunities for people to be heard, such as at an annual town meeting that draws as many as 400-500 participants. It also hosts numerous advisory groups eliciting diverse representation, and encourages its board members to meet with these community leaders so that they can better understand community needs as well as how AHS is viewed in its relationship with those it serves.
Although AHS, like other community health centers, has had to adapt to changes in funding, new models for providing care to the underserved, and of course the Affordable Care Act, its adherence to its values keeps its identity in the community intact even in the midst of change. AHS knows who it is as an organization and the values it stands for, and it is because of this that the community also knows and trusts who AHS is. This trust is critical to AHS’ ability to continue to demonstrate and grow its impact.
Vision and values are not only important for maintaining “true north” in pursuing a social sector mission, they can also drive innovation. For example, in La Piana Consulting’s exploration of game-changing strategy, we heard stories of how putting organizational values at the center of a new strategy helped pull together the talent, will, and resources needed to make it succeed.
How might a return to the fundamentals of vision and values help center and catalyze your organization’s response to new realities?