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When it comes to choosing your external values, playing it safe is the greatest risk you can take

15 January 2010

Olly Lawder, from the agency Spencer du Bois, talks about the need to be bold to get your messages heard

By playing it safe with generic values, confusing them with internal behaviours and not being bold enough, charities are missing an opportunity for compelling emotional engagement.

That’s the key message emerging from our recent analysis here at Spencer du Bois, the charity branding specialists. Based on research of 50 of the top 100 UK charities, we found that although there are some exceptional examples of good practice, most value statements are general and generic.

So what traps are organisations falling into, and how does playing it safe become the greatest risk you can take?

Use of generic “table stake” values

Table stakes are those values that are shared across a sector, expected and assumed by all but which are often considered “things that we should probably say”. The main problem with using a table stake as one of your values is that you end up stating the obvious or telling people what they already know.

In the private sector the most common table stake values are professional and dynamic. So what table stakes did we find in the charity sector? Well, some of the worst offenders were “honest” (10% of the charities researched), “passionate” (25%) and “committed” (25%). These values are almost universal in the third sector; it’s like stating that you are ‘altruistic’. Sure, you may know a few organisations that lack these qualities in your area but chances are they will claim they have them anyway.

The bare minimum to aim for when choosing and expressing your values is to not waste your audience’s time by simply telling them what type of organisation they can expect to find in the charity sector. What’s more, it can arouse suspicion, “why do you feel the need to say you’re honest?!”

The simple rule with table stakes is this: Don’t tell me you’re funny, make me laugh! In other words, demonstrate you are professional, inclusive, transparent, etc. and use your values statement for something really engaging and differentiating.

Distinguishing values from behaviours

Another stumbling block seems to be some confusion between ‘values’ and ‘behaviours’ with 35% of the charities we looked at showing evidence of confusing the two.

The confusion between values, which are external communications tools, and behaviours which are internal management tools, is an understandable one since they have a similar sounding, positive, meaning-laden vocabulary.

Using “respect” (28%) and “effective” (16%) are examples of this. However, the key difference is that behaviours are ‘the standards you operate to’ and values are “the principles behind your actions”. When these two get confused a crucial opportunity to engage and connect is lost. In the worst examples we found values statements that read like the internal strategy documents they were probably copied and pasted from!

Your values should be about why you do what you do. They’re an opportunity to connect by saying what drives you, what you believe and what are you not prepared to tolerate. They are not an occasion to talk about your equal opportunities policy or customer-focus.

Playing it safe

In addition to those relying on generic table stakes and standard internal behaviours, 28% of the charities we looked at didn’t explicitly talk about their values at all. Now, if their values shine through strong copy and engaging branding then that’s one thing, but if it is a deliberate attempt not to alienate or offend then it is a serious misjudgement.

All charities are expected to have core beliefs and want to see a change in the world. Over a third of the charities we researched cited “equality” as one of their key values, therefore they should really be upsetting someone somewhere because if not, then they aren’t fighting the vested interests that perpetuate inequality.

Crowded market

So what to do? If playing it safe will leave you drowned out, indistinct and unengaging does that mean you have to be “dangerous”? No, not dangerous and certainly not reckless but bold, ambitious, leading and real. Draw your values out from the organisation and tell them well. Tell people who you are and why it matters that you exist. If you don’t take a stand for something, you may as well not stand for anything. By trying to please everyone and playing it safe, you could risk not getting through to anyone.

Remember, in a crowded market, people will listen to you and give you time and money when they care about your cause and share the values that drive your approach. Getting them right and expressing them well is essential to helping your organisation achieve its goals.

A few pointers

So how do you develop relevant, meaningful and differentiating values? We’d offer the following tips.

  • Don’t waste the opportunity to use value statements to say something really engaging and differentiating. Demonstrate that you are professional, inclusive, transparent etc, rather than stating it outright.
  • When emotional engagement is the goal, lead with the “why” rather than the “what” or “how”. Your values are about why you do what you do. Values are about the principles that drive you.
  • Stand for something, cause a reaction, get past the obvious and taken for granted, remember who you represent and find something genuine, then people will rally to your cause, give you the funds you need and make you the change-maker you were conceived to be.
  • Talk with people who care and tell them how your values drive your approach.
    The solution is not to make something up; if you can’t find anything genuine then be prepared to fundamentally change who you are. The objective is to identify the truth of what you stand for, and then tell it well.

For some examples of those who are getting it right, see Save the Children (what we stand for), Oxfam (why we do it), Mencap (How Mencap will achieve our mission).

Photo: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Olly Lawder

consultant, Spencer du Bois

At Spencer du Bois, Olly worked as a brand consultant specialising in values-led communications, delivering brand positioning and key messaging.