Passion, strong belief and the desire to right a wrong are the founding motivations of most voluntary organisations. As they grow, the challenge for them is to harness that energy and inspire people to retain a focus on what they consider important.
The mission statement used to be the way voluntary organisations told the world about themselves. Some organisations have expanded that to include their vision, purpose and values. But what do these grand notions really mean? Is there any more to them than words on a website or a poster?
Ideally, the vision is there to inspire, the mission to explain and the purpose to motivate. But many argue that values are what shape voluntary organisations, both in terms of what they do and how they do it.
"Talking about our values, building every activity on our values and measuring our activity against our values are the key ways to mould, rather than be moulded by, the opportunities and pressures that face us," says Geraldine Blake, head of Links UK, a charity that champions social change, and co-author of Living Values, a report on third sector values published last June.
But when voluntary organisations are asked about the extent to which they focus on values in their day-to-day operations, there's no uniform answer. Some, such as Cosmic, an IT-related social enterprise based in Devon, are passionate about them. "Our values underpin everything we do," says Cosmic chief executive Julie Harris. "They are here to inform and advise us as we move forward, saying 'remember to stay true to this little bunch'."
Others take a different view. In a Third Sector debate on Living Values, Lord Victor Adebowale, chief executive of social care organisation Turning Point, said: "The people who receive services from us don't care about 'core values'; they care about the availability and level of service they get."
Although Blake found that most of the organisations she contacted for her research said they had values, how they defined and acted on them varied. "The term is slippery," Blake admits. "People don't always get what you're talking about."
Even when organisations hadn't explicitly defined their values, Blake found that there were often strong values underlying their work. This was the case at Cosmic when Harris joined.
"The organisation already had values, although they weren't documented or discussed fully," she says. "The founders talked about inclusion, about tackling rural issues and engaging young people so they didn't disappear to the cities. There's no doubt that values were being used by the organisation, but they were not recognised as such."
Harris used her knowledge of social accounting (measuring an organisation's social and ethical performance) to assess what made Cosmic special and what would keep it so. "I started to recognise the implications not just of mission and objectives, but of what underpins it all - values," she says.
Involving staff, volunteers, trustees and other stakeholders in the process of teasing out those values was really important for the organisation.
Similarly, when Hospiscare defined its values two and a half years ago, debate among internal stakeholders was key to the process. Dr Jim Gilbert, the palliative care provider's medical director, says: "We had these five rather dry principles of an effective health service, and they informed our strategy. Our communications officer wanted to tell people what was important to us and what we believed in on our new website.
"The starting point was to say something coherent and in tune with our principles for external consumption. Once we started to define our values, it became an internal exercise in discovering what people had to say and what they thought."
Hospiscare recently had to decide where it stood in relation to the attempt to change the law on assisted dying. By using its stated values as a starting point for the debate, it brought a focus to the discussion that hadn't been available in its early days, when it tried to define its policy on HIV and Aids.
Gilbert says: "We have a tension between our first stated value, which is that the last chapter of a person's life is important, and the second, which is that we respect an individual's choices and tailor our service to each person's needs. Despite widely divergent individual views on the subject, when it came to saying something on behalf of the organisation we were able to get a consensus."
What works well for resolving difficult issues can also work strategically.
VSO is an example of an organisation that has put its values at the heart of its strategic planning process. Judith Brodie joined the organisation early this year as UK group director. She says: "What has struck me is the power of our strategic document, which is called Focus for Change.
It really does guide everything that VSO does. When I look at the values in Focus for Change, I can see all of them are manifest in everything the organisation does."
The values debate is especially relevant in the current period of change for the voluntary sector. The shift from grant funding to public sector contracts for service delivery can be seen both as an opportunity and as a threat. There is the potential for significant growth, but there is also concern that the new environment will mean less funding for voluntary organisations that wish to deliver what they want in their own way.
The Government's interest in working with the voluntary sector also raises concerns about the short-term nature of targets, a top-down approach and centrally imposed outcomes. There may be a danger of mission creep as cash-strapped organisations chase funding and contracts.
The enemy within
All the more reason, Blake believes, to stress the importance of values in the sector. Her research revealed that the biggest threat comes from within: from failing to focus clearly on values; from chasing funding that does not fit values; from allowing values to be influenced by others outside the sector; and from allowing the demands of running an organisation to overshadow values.
"The assumption that the sector's values are at the mercy of forces outside its control was strongly disputed by interviewees' responses," she says.
"Organisations felt that they had to take responsibility themselves for making their values live."
Blake believes this approach is compatible with tendering for public service delivery. "Organisations that are clear about their values are the ones that don't find this situation difficult," she argues. "It makes their choices clear, if not any easier."
She cites the example of Revolving Doors, which works with ex-offenders.
It turned down a big government contract that did not fit its values. The charity felt that doing work to meet people's needs, not because they met a sentence plan, was fundamental to its success and more important than losing funding.
In the end, the National Offender Management Service recognised the value of Revolving Doors' approach, adjusted its plan and the charity landed the contract on its own terms.
Brodie is also confident that VSO's values play a key role in winning core funding from the Department for International Development. She says: "The DfID is clearly committed to the way we work, and I think that it does make a difference to have a distinctive approach."
At Cosmic, staff apply the organisation's values to test whether they are chasing the right funding. "We ask whether it will deliver outputs that we can, hand on heart, say are about our values," says Harris. "It's like a graphic equaliser. If you park all these values alongside each other, there's a sliding scale for each of them. Some projects will be more inspirational and innovative than they are accessible or supportive. It wouldn't be acceptable, however, for any of the bars to fall below halfway."
Harris accepts, however, that funders don't generally scrutinise applicants' values. "They are looking for what we will deliver," she says. "But we are keen to tell them what underpins that delivery."
Recruitment is another area in which organisations say values make a difference. Being explicit about organisational values can make it easier to recruit and retain people who share them; an absence of such clarity can explain why some people with the right skills do not sit comfortably in an organisation.
Cosmic has embedded its values into its recruitment process so that the organisation's aims and messages are clear at application, interview and induction. Its approach was recently endorsed when it sailed through its Investors in People review in one day.
"The assessor said she was struggling to find areas for improvement," says Harris. "She also said we had the best staff handbook and induction procedure she'd seen. Our values live and breathe in these documents and we have reviewed them strenuously over the years."
Brodie is also convinced that VSO's values have a positive impact on staff morale. "Everyone is incredibly motivated by what we want to achieve in developing countries, and the way we want to do that is driven by our values," she says.
"One of our values is that people working together can achieve positive and lasting change. That's fundamental to our volunteering proposition.
We recruit volunteers from around the world, which reflects another of our values: the importance of diversity. People are motivated by the sustainability, strength and power of our distinctive approach to development."
Examples such as this show that having strong values and using them in practical ways can help voluntary organisations navigate successfully through the changing landscape of the sector and remain true to themselves.
Blake acknowledges, however, that some, including the Government, might not be impressed by talk of values.
She says: "Government wants to work with the voluntary sector, but is in danger of making it like the public sector. We have to make clear why we're different. The real challenge is about hard evidence. We need to show that we're actually building work on values, and that we can measure the impact by showing that such an outcome happens because we work like this. If we can do that, then we can negotiate with government in a different way."