What do values have to do with it?

For those of us working to create long-lasting systemic change, questions about means versus ends can generate lively and often heated conversations. If we only have a few years to stop catastrophic climate change, slow environmental degradation and fight poverty then shouldn’t do whatever we can right now to make the biggest impact?

If we believe that time is of the essence, shouldn’t we scale ourselves up as quickly as possible even if it means acting like outdated institutions? If it helps us be more efficient, should we build rigid top-down decision-making structures? Is it okay to burn out team members during the start-up phase if it’s for the greater good? Should we fly all over the world telling people how to reduce their carbon footprint? Do we take funding from anywhere that offers since it will enable us to do more? Tough questions those, and no easy answer.

However, recent work being done into the impact of values-based campaigning sheds some interesting light. If we believe we’re playing the long game (and for what’s it worth, I think that we are) then the means become just as important as the ends.

Why do values matter?

The Common Cause report and resulting project, which was commissioned by a consortium of UK-based organizations, highlights the big reasons why values matter – they shape our attitudes and behaviour, they’re deep-rooted but can be influenced and – most interestingly – some sets of values are in direct conflict with one another. By encouraging one set of values, we could actually be hurting the values that might be behind actions like community involvement, volunteering, democratic engagement and working actively for the social good.

Values in action

This conversation helped give me a language to describe why the different projects I’ve chosen to get involved with have placed huge importance on ‘walking the talk’, or putting values into action.

For example, the Otesha Project‘s aim is to help young people take action on social and environmental issues and inspire others to do the same. Over the past five years, our team has had many conversations about the impact of what we eat, wear, get around on, and otherwise consume. How much does living our values matter? For us, the answer was that it matters a lot.

When the Otesha team sat down last year and talked through our key values, we identified equality, genuine participation, holistic thinking, social justice, environmental sustainability and freedom from oppression as important values that drive our approach to everything from what new programmes get developed to where we get our funding and how we run team meetings. Our shift to a non-hierarchical structure was also part of aligning ourselves more fully with our values.


For us, living and breathing our values was incredibly important. It’s given us much greater credibility with our stakeholders, especially young people, ensured that we always had a dedicated and committed staff team, and inspired a ripple effect of change in other organizations.

Why might articulating & acting on your values matter?

Credibility: If you are an environmental non-profit based in a green building, a sustainability communications agency that gives employees extra vacation days for low-carbon travel, or a youth organization that’s actually led by young people, you will come across as more authentic and genuinely committed to your goals. And most importantly, you’ll actually be more authentic and genuinely committed to your goals.

Staff commitment & retention: If you lay your values out clearly, you will attract people who share your values. If you live your values internally as well as promote them externally, I’d wager that you’ll create a pretty great place to work – an inspiring, game-changing place even. At Otesha, we found incredible team members who were specifically attracted to our cooperative decision-making and who looked forward to the job as a chance to make some lifestyle changes they always intended to do but needed some support with (like cycling in London – eep!).

Better strategic decisions: Shared values are a great way to assess whether a particular partnership, collaboration or funding relationship will be a good fit. New initiatives can also be sussed out this way, weeding out ideas that don’t align completely with your values. I’ve learned the hard way that some potential partners might look great on paper, but turn out as a disaster in real life because of a values mismatch. And now I know that I work best with people who believe that social and environmental issues are deeply interconnected, genuinely value and want to encourage deep participation, and get excited about creativity and innovation.

Broaden your impact: By working in a way that’s aligned with your values, you might inspire other organizations to do the same. Otesha’s had loads of interest in our Corporate Screening Policy that determines what businesses we will and won’t take money from. Several organizations have said they’re looking at implementing a non-hierarchical working structure based on our success. And people are consistently asking us about the most low-impact ways to refurbish their offices or plan their next holiday.

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About lizmcdowell

I am a strategist, facilitator, social entrepreneur, campaigner and occasional tetra-pak wallet-maker. Learn more about me at http://flavours.me/lizmcdowell

2 responses to “What do values have to do with it?”

  1. Chris says :

    The extra days for low-carbon travel is a great idea! Every time I tell people I mostly travelled to my out-of-province university by bus and train, their biggest astonishment is that I found time for it. For people who don’t have the same amorphous schedules as students, this would be a big help.

  2. lizmcdowell says :

    I agree- I really like how Futerra implemented that policy since it can be pretty difficult to take enough time for long-distance train travel otherwise. Hopefully the idea will spread!

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