Organizational Values in the Heritage Sector

In the heritage sector, values and brand are ultimately one and the same.

bridge, paris

If your mission describes what you do as an organization, both your values and your brand describe how you do it. That may sound strange: brand and values sound like two very different areas of concern. But I’m going to suggest to you that in the heritage sector, the two are inexorably linked; one is a manifestation of the other. In this mini-series of articles, I’ll outline what I mean by organizational values, and in future articles I’ll talk about defining brand personality and benefits, and how these must necessarily honour your values.

Your organizational values are the ethics and morals that shepherd you through your day to day practices. They describe what you will do and won’t do in order to achieve your mission. From these flow your brand: your organizational personality. “In everything we do, we are…”

In the corporate world, a company’s values are usually a manifestation of those of the company’s leadership: the CEO, the company founder, the board of directors. The same is true in the non-profit sector, and an organization’s values (and brand) can shift radically as leadership changes hands. This is, of course, natural. But a lack of consistency in organizational values, like lack of consensus over mission, leads to mixed messages externally, and conflict behind the scenes.

In the nature/heritage tourism sector, a certain set of values would seem to be inherent in our missions. We value nature or we value history. We value education and life-long learning. We value the conservation of our resource, be it a historic property or a natural area or precious artefacts. It’s easy to find consensus within your organization on the big, flagship priorities.

A values exercise becomes more difficult, and more important, once you delve beyond your subject matter into your practices. You value learning and education, but do you value intellectual criticism and dissent? How much dissent, and from whom? Your staff? The media?

Do you value traditional knowledge, even when it conflicts with empirical evidence?

Do you value compromise? To what extent? What are  you willing to compromise to meet your goals?

Do you value consultation and consensus? What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve that consensus? What happens when your consultations reveal that your community disagrees with you?

Do you value outspokenness? When the resource you love (and exist to protect) is under threat, how militant are you willing to be? Do you value publicly criticizing your opponents, or privately reasoning with them? To what extent are you an advocacy group?

Do you value fiscal responsibility? What if going into debt would help save a precious resource? What if selling a treasured property or natural area would ensure your survival as an organization?

Do you value environmental sustainability? Even when it runs you over budget?

These are the questions that tear organizations apart. These are the discussions that distract boards and staff from the rewarding work that they have come together to do.

Certainly, disagreements over ethics and practices are natural, and boards of directors exist to resolve these differences within an established democratic forum. But board membership can turn over with remarkable speed at times—particularly during periods of conflict. Disagreement over fiscal practice is a tremendous source of discord, in the non-profit world as much as in any marriage. Difference of opinion over a board’s desired level of activism is another very common source of conflict. A chronically divided board accomplishes nothing.

A values exercise, then, is an attempt to establish and codify your ethical approach to the prickly issues that are likely to rear their heads in the foreseeable future. Your values become your moral compass and the pillars of your daily practice. They will guide your strategic planning, your staff recruitment, your training, all of your programs, and every decision you make.

Next: Defining your organizational values: an exercise

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