CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS: inquiry, insight, impact


Non-profit boards come in three flavours: those that are neutral, passively sitting on the sidelines cheering the organization on; those that do more harm than good, damaging an organization through dysfunction or conflict; and those that take the organization to the next level, contributing vision and value. Boards, with all their strengths and flaws, will continue to be with us as they are legally mandated to oversee and be accountable for organizational performance.

Boards exist in a state of dynamic tension. How could they not – when they bring together individual board members from different perspectives, backgrounds and sectors; and then ask them to meet the often conflicting expectations of funders, donors, clients, legislators, staff and community?

In the last few decades academics, consultants and CEOs have weighed in on the need to enhance the effectiveness of the board’s work and the quality of board members. During this period the nature and focus of the board’s work has changed and expectations have grown. In the past, boards focused internally on establishing and growing an organization. Boards today are expected to act as stewards, direction-setters, champions, and to serve as the accountability body. The board is also expected to connect the organization to various communities and to be aware of the broader system and the organization’s contribution within that system.

Today’s board members are diverse, intelligent and passionate. We argue that ‘critical conversations’ can be used to access and engage diverse talents within the boardroom and assist the board in fulfilling its multi-faceted role.

Leading strategist Henry Mintzberg, when asked about the value of boards, likened them to “bumblebees buzzing around the heads of CEOs” (Governance as Leadership, p. 28). CEOs must attend to the buzzing… and focusing the buzz on critical topics improves the conversation.

Critical Conversations

The power of conversation should not be under-estimated as a vehicle through which boards can reach sound decisions, add value, and exercise leadership.

In their book Governance as Leadership, Chait, Ryan and Taylor introduced the ‘fiduciary’, ‘strategic’ and ‘generative’ as three modes of governance that boards must engage in to fulfil their various roles and responsibilities. These modes begin to frame critical conversations.

In the fiduciary mode (oversight), the board focuses on the stewardship of assets – e.g. the efficient use of resources, fiscal accountability, risk management and the operational oversight.

In the strategic mode (foresight), the board acts as strategist in partnership with senior staff. In this mode the board thinks and acts strategically – e.g. setting direction and planning for the future. This involves monitoring the changing environment, and considering the implications for the organization.

The generative mode (insight) is about sense-making, framing and reframing problems, questioning assumptions and creative thinking.

Many boards tend to focus their discussions at the fiduciary and strategic levels, but in today’s volatile and uncertain environment, employing all three modes is crucial to helping the board and organization understand and respond to complex issues.

conversationFocused inquiry driven by powerful questions engages the three modes, accesses diversity of thinking and uncovers new strategies to solve persistent problems. One non-profit CEO described the value of one board member’s persistent, insightful questions as causing her to “sharpen her pencil” and arrive better prepared for board meetings.

This blog series is designed to orient board members and senior leaders to critical topics that are not always addressed during regular board meetings. The topics we have selected are informed by powerful conversations we have facilitated with different clients over the years. These topics are ‘critical’ because they have implications for organizational impact and sustainability, and support the board in fulfilling its leadership and stewardship roles.

Engaging in these conversations, individual board members develop the knowledge and skills to serve as ambassadors, enhance their generative thinking capacity, and acquire a clearer line of sight between their governance work and mission results.

At the organizational level the conversations generate more nuanced understanding of external trends and forces, implications and opportunities; new insights into problems and assumptions; and innovative strategies. An organization’s ability to continuously adapt and evolve leads to greater resilience and mission impact. Finally, a board that makes a difference attracts and retains quality, committed board members.

The Series

“Critical Conversations in the Boardroom” provides a framework for designing meaningful conversations that will add value to an organization. In each post we present the context and rationale for each topic, identify sample fiduciary, strategic and generative questions boards can use to design powerful and engaging conversations as well as related resources (e.g. articles, books and tools).

Question types

Questions fuel conversations, and developing powerful questions is a craft. Powerful questions are simple, clear, thought-provoking, energize a group, surface assumptions, and expand possibilities (Brown et al, 2002). They invite inquiry and discovery and require a group to engage ‘both/and’ thinking. They engage the board in discussions that are meaningful on multiple levels, engaging heads and hearts.

In some cases, the conversations lead to decisions, while in other cases, the conversation is an end in itself. The purpose may be to engage different perspectives and expand collective understanding. The chart below highlights how each mode can be accessed through different kinds of questions.

Fiduciary oversight mode

Strategic foresight mode

Generative insight mode

Questions focus on

  • Exploring the facts… there may be a financial or sustainability dimension
  • Monitoring of performance or compliance
  • Developing, reviewing or assessing adherence to policies
Questions focus on

  • Developing strategies to leverage internal strengths or address weaknesses
  • Identifying and analyzing the implications of changes in the external environment
  • Determining how to respond to emerging challenges and opportunities
Questions focus on

  • Clearly defining and making sense of a problem
  • Surfacing and questioning assumptions
  • Crafting both/and solutions to complex problems


Making Time for Critical Conversations

We know board agendas are often jam-packed leaving limited time for in-depth discussion. Some boards make time for conversations that matter by using a ‘consent agenda’ to package and receive regular reports in one motion. Consent agenda items are distributed to board members as part of the board package for review, and are not discussed during the meetings, unless the board requests a discussion. Two articles below describe consent agendas and considerations for using them.

We hope you will consider the topics we’ve outlined and make time for critical conversations. The sample questions we will be providing can be adapted to your own situation and build your board’s fiduciary, strategic and generative thinking capacity. We can hear the bumblebees buzzing.

Post 1: “To give or not to give” is not THE question: Boards and fundraising

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services

Recommended Reading

Consent agenda. David Renz, A Board Resource Tool from the Midwest Center for Nonprofit Leadership.

Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards. Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara E. Taylor. Wiley. 2004.

Governance as leadership: an interview with Richard P. Chait. Great Boards, Summer 2005. Bader & Associates Governance Consultants.

Moments of Impact – How to Design Strategic Conversations That Accelerate Change. Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. Simon &Schuster 2014.

On Dialogue. David Bohm. Routledge, 2nd edition, 2004.

Strategic questioning: engaging people’s best thinking. Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Eric Vogt and Nancy Margulies. The Systems Thinker. Vol. 13, No. 9. November 2002.

The consent agenda: A tool for improving governance. BoardSource 2006.

“To Give or not to Give” is not THE Question: Boards and fundraising

As stewards responsible for an organization’s financial sustainability, the board’s contribution to fundraising is a critical conversation. The board has a variety of roles to play in relation to fundraising, and we pose fiduciary, strategic and generative questions (to learn more about these, see our first post in the CRITICAL CONVERSATIONS series) to stimulate the board’s understanding of this responsibility.

moneybagsHistorically many non-profit organizations recruited board members for their ability to “give or get” money. As organizations matured and their funding sources stabilized, organizations started to recruit board members for their talent, time and diverse perspectives, including service users who may not be in a position to give substantial amounts. Expectations that board members make a personal contribution diminished for government funded organizations. Some board members believe they contribute their time and talent in lieu of a financial gift.

Today, when government funding doesn’t cover program and operational costs, the expectation that board members contribute financially has been revived. Foundations and major donors look at board giving rates as an indication that the organization’s leadership is confident and fully invested in the work being done.

According to a recent US survey by BoardSource, approximately 68% of non-profit organizations have articulated a “board giving” policy. Board giving policies often include an expectation that each member contributes an amount they consider generous or personally meaningful – i.e. each according to their means. Many boards aim for 100% participation rates and report their participation rates to funders. A survey conducted by the Nonprofit Research Collaborative in 2013 found that board giving had increased in 47% of the organizations surveyed.

In addition to making personal contributions, boards have other roles to play in supporting organizational fundraising efforts – e.g. events, direct mail and capital campaigns, major gifts and bequests, and corporate sponsorships. Roles include attending fundraising events and meeting with key funders. Board members can more easily set aside time to lend their support at one or more events during the year if staff maintain a calendar of events. When it comes to gifts and bequests, with appropriate tools and support, board members can promote these options in their communities.

Donor_callPenelope Burk of Cygnus Applied Research has investigated why donors give. One practice she recommends to boards is a “1-minute thank-you call”. Board members follow up on recent donations with a very brief phone call to thank the donor on behalf of the organization. Although no additional request for donations is made, donors who receive a simple thank-you from a senior volunteer tend to make another gift sooner than they might otherwise have done, and the size of their subsequent gifts tends to increase.

Board members’ personal and professional networks are a vital resource in an organization’s fundraising efforts. Inviting members of their networks to fundraising events has long been an expectation of board members. Today, board members’ networks can also be helpful for an organization that is seeking to establish corporate sponsorships and partnerships. When an organization embarks on this kind of fundraising strategy, sharing who you know expands the opportunity pool.

Board members with skills in fundraising and communications can be key assets on a board. Not only can they provide an outside perspective to staff, they can educate fellow board members about fundamentals of fundraising. Strategic recruitment of board members is one way for a board to access these skills.

Critical Conversations

We know that every board is at a different stage when it comes to involvement in fundraising. The questions below are presented as possible topics for the board to explore through dialogue. We recommend a board set aside approximately 30-60 minutes to explore several questions.

Distributing an article related to the topic in advance can be useful in priming board members for the conversation – we’ve identified some recommended articles and books below. The questions in each mode engage the board in a different kind of thinking, so consider mixing and matching to engage the board in a substantive dialogue.

Fiduciary Questions Strategic Questions Generative Questions
  • What funding model(s) does our organization use? (see related resource below, “Ten Non-profit Funding Models”)
  • Are our fundraising vehicles – e.g. events, direct mail, capital campaigns – delivering a positive return on investment?
  • What’s our board giving policy? Where are we in relation to our targets?
  • Which board members need to be involved in which funding-related events? What role should they play?
  • Who (i.e. people, corporations, associations) are we connected with that might support our organization in some way? E.g. as corporate sponsors, material resources?
  • What other sources of funding might we pursue? What role might the board play in growing this type of funding?
  • How might we inspire people to give us money without asking them directly?
  • What assumptions do we each have about fundraising… and how do these limit our collective success?
  • How might a person with limited money but extensive networks help us access substantial funds?

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Related resources

  1. Board members and the art of saying thanks. Interview with Penelope Burk by Jay Blossom. IN TRUST. Summer 2013.
  2. Finding Your Funding Model, by Peter Kim, Gail Perreault, &William Foster. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2011.
  3. Nonprofit Fundraising Study – Covering charitable receipts at Nonprofit organizations in the United States and Canada in 2013. Nonprofit Research Collaborative, March 2014.
  4. Ten Nonprofit Funding Models, by William Landes Foster, Peter Kim, & Barbara Christiansen.Stanford Social Innovation Review, Spring 2009.
  5. The Power of a Case for Support. Nell Edgington, Social Velocity.

EnviroScan21 – The Toronto Supportive Housing Sector Experience

If you’re a thought leader in your sector, chances are you receive regular invitations to complete surveys, participate in interviews and focus groups. There’s a lot of consultation going on… but when it comes to scanning the external environment, many non-profit organizations need and seek the same kind of information.

There’s no doubt that understanding what’s going on in the environment is an important aspect of strategic planning; but is there a better way for stakeholders to understand the system they operate in? Individual agencies generally analyze external forces through internal discussions about their findings. How can we break out of these agency silos to better understand the rest of the system?

In our consulting practice, we assist organizations in scanning their internal and external environments as part of a strategic planning process. This common quest for data and system understanding represents an opportunity for organizations to get smarter together.

Scanning Our EnvironmentsMany PESTEL (see diagram above) forces in the external environment affect every non-profit organization to some degree, while some impact only those working in a particular sector, or with a particular population. Historically, and with permission, we’ve shared such findings across agencies working in the same sector. Recently we experienced a more efficient and effective approach.

NetworkTreeIn the fall of 2013 we facilitated an environmental scanning process for 21 Toronto area supportive housing agencies. The process was collaborative, efficient and led to the identification of four areas of collective action for their 29 member Network – the Toronto Mental Health and Addictions Supportive Housing Network (the Network). Network members have a long history of working on collaborative initiatives; this process gave them an opportunity to share knowledge and collectively make sense of their common challenges and opportunities within a shared and evolving system.

The supportive housing sector receives funding from a variety of sources and staying up-to-date with funders’ changing expectations, along with the changing needs of tenants/clients and staff requires significant effort. It’s almost impossible for any one leader or organization to stay on top of all the trends, forces and new research, even if leaders are involved in sector initiatives and diligently scan the external environment on an ongoing basis. As part of the scanning process, we surveyed Network members, consumer groups, funders, and private landlords to learn more about their perspectives on the supportive housing system and the changing needs of tenants/clients.

The sector scan process benefitted from the knowledge and insights of the 21 partner agencies and their Executive Directors (ED). EDs shared key reports and recent research that has informed their organization’s work. These documents were posted to an online repository that all partners can access at their convenience. We analyzed the content of the reports and survey data, and distilled the findings in an Environmental Scan Report.

Partner agency representatives met for a half-day strategic thinking session to explore the findings presented in the Report. Participants added to, and challenged some of the findings, and discussed the implications for the supportive housing sector and those they support. The discussion concluded with the identification of four areas for collective action. Leads for each area agreed to convene action groups to move the four initiatives forward.

StrategicThinkingAt the strategic thinking session participants commented that the collaborative process helped the group focus on the system as a whole. The collective action will reinvigorate the Network by giving it new direction. The Report will be of interest within and beyond each organization. Elements will be shared with a variety of external audiences. Ideally the Scan will serve as a common platform for supportive housing agency strategic planning processes and lead to an ongoing exchange of information and dialogue among Network members. Participants thought an annual strategic thinking session for the Network would be valuable.

We were thrilled to be part of the process and would like to thank the Project Oversight Group members that we collaborated with to co-design and implement the process. We think the process will enhance the supportive housing sector’s ability to respond collectively and creatively to the forces driving change and ultimately deliver better outcomes for those they support. It significantly reduced duplication of effort – for agencies and those consulted.

Q4L-EnviroScan21Although we recognize this process benefitted from the Network’s historical working relationships, we think it could be replicated in other sectors with less developed collaborative relationships or networks. It’s an ideal way to experiment with collaboration and build trust within a sector.

Interested? Let’s talk!

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo, VISION Management Services


Are you ready for the Leadership Shift?

Several Canadian studies have been released over the last the last decade predicting a wave of senior leadership retirements in the non-profit sector (see related resources at end). Peel Leadership Centre (PLC) asked us to analyze the data from their first survey of regional non-profit Executive Directors (ED) in the fall of 2013. The Peel Region numbers paint a clear picture of the change to come: more than 50% of EDs plan to leave their roles in the next 1-4 years. By comparison, the Ontario Nonprofit Network (ONN) found that 60% of leaders plan to leave their current role in the next 5 years (2013); and the HR Council of Canada reported that on a national level the number is 55% (2012). When it comes to change readiness, the numbers are even more disconcerting: only 27% of the Peel Region organizations surveyed reported having a succession plan in place.

This data is not new, but the time horizon for this huge leadership shift looms nearer. The 2008 economic downturn has led some leaders in the non-profit and for-profit sectors to delay retirement. Despite this reprieve, it appears few non-profit organizations and boards have engaged in productive conversations about the larger challenges and opportunities that this shift will bring.

Leadership TransitionThe loss of the collective wisdom of retirees over the next 5 years cannot be underestimated. Although some EDs who founded their organizations learned on the job, many long-standing EDs benefitted from professional development programs that were available. Today there are fewer opportunities for leadership development. One promising finding in the PLC survey was that many experienced leaders are mentoring their staff as well as newer EDs. In a recent meeting of supportive housing sector leaders, one newer ED commented how concerned she was about the impending retirement of mentors she has relied on since assuming her role.

The article “Exit Agreements for nonprofit CEOs” (see related resources below) highlights how one organization retained some of this knowledge and expertise by contracting with their former ED to stay involved as a part-time grant-writer after retirement. This arrangement was borne in part out of necessity – their dedicated ED was not financially able to retire after working many years on a low salary without a pension plan. Analysis of the PLC survey data found that many outgoing EDs predict their organizations will need to increase salaries and redesign their role to recruit a successor.

What then, are the opportunities for organizations in this transition? In parallel with the impending leadership transition, a variety of forces are driving change in the non-profit sector. In today’s lean economic times, the models under which many organizations have operated are no longer viable. Funders expect organizations to find efficiencies, deliver evidence-based services, demonstrate impact, engage externally with a range of stakeholders, and act as part of a larger system.

Questions for LeadersThese changes require thinking and acting differently on multiple levels – from how services are designed and delivered, to how charitable work is funded. Organizations need to be nimble and adaptable. This environment demands innovation and an ability to do and lead differently; to collaborate across sectors; and to share leadership internally and externally. A leadership transition is an opportunity to position the organization for this changing environment.

Many studies have pointed to the different values and expectations those from different generations bring to the workplace. Younger generations seek values alignment in their work, opportunities to make a difference, flexibility and greater work-life balance compared to their parents. Both the PLC and ONN survey findings revealed that these interests conflict with the way non-profit leadership roles are currently defined.

Ernst and Young’s (EY) 2013 survey of 1200 professionals in the US highlights some perceived generational strengths and weaknesses of leaders in the workplace. It will be of interest to those developing and recruiting future leaders:EY Generational Differences of Leaders

A Transition Toolbox                                                                                                         EDs and boards both have work to do to prepare and facilitate a smooth leadership transition – key tools include:

  • A succession plan – for the sudden or planned departure of your organization’s leader
  • An exit agreement – that enables your ED to retire at a time that is right for him/her and the organization
  • A development plan – for middle level managers to develop their leadership skills by giving them responsibility for some of the areas that EDs currently fulfill
  • A redesigned ED role – that recognizes and promotes shared leadership; the need for more external, system-level work; and the value of work-life balance

Related resources

  1. “Building leaderful organizations – Succession planning for nonprofits” Executive Transition Monograph Series, Volume 6, The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2008.
  2. “Driving change: A national study of Canadian nonprofit executive leaders, The HR Council for the Nonprofit Sector, 2012.
  3. “Exit Agreements for Nonprofit CEOs: A Guide for Boards and Executives”, by Tome Adams, Melanie Herman and Tim Wolfred, Nonprofit Quarterly, Fall/Winter 2013
  4. “Next generation leaders: What they want and need from the workplace” by Terri Klass, Judy Lindenberger and Jean-Baptiste Marchais. Nonprofit Quarterly online July 19, 2011.
  5.  “Shaping the Future: Leadership in Ontario’s Nonprofit Labour Force – Summary of Findings” Prepared by Elizabeth McIsaac, Stella Park, Lynne Toupin for The Ontario Nonprofit Network and the Mowat Centre, University of Toronto.
  6.  “Who’s Leading Non-profits in Peel Region? A Snapshot of Executive Directors – 2013 ED Survey” prepared by Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong for Peel Leadership Centre, September 2013.
  7. “Executive summary: Younger managers rise in the ranks” EY Survey, September 2013.

Sandi Trillo and Ruth Armstrong, VISION Management Services

Bold decision-making: letting go to leap ahead

Red LightStrategic discussions often surface compelling opportunities that board and senior staff are excited to pursue. The tough part of these discussions comes when we raise the question, “what can the organization STOP doing, or let go of, in order to free up the energy and resources to pursue these opportunities?” The typical response, after a moment of silence, is, “not much”. Staff and board members become attached to programs, and rarely wind down what may be a moderately successful service. So innovations exacerbate already heavy workloads… which might explain why some great ideas are never realized. One organization we worked with recently, Community Living St.Marys & Area (CLSMA), that provides services to people with developmental disabilities made a bold decision back in the late 1980s to stop delivering ‘programs’ and support people in the community in a more individualized way. This meant letting go of, and dismantling, the way things had been done in order to pioneer new approaches.

We interviewed Marg McLean, CLSMA’s Executive Director (ED), to find out more. She confirmed that their vision – “a community where everyone belongs” – served as a strong foundation underpinning the decision. Environmental forces at the time created a supportive climate for the change. A number of people were moving back to the community after living in institutions for many years, and several researchers/ practitioners* were promoting thinking on inclusion and person-centred planning. Although there was an interest in doing differently, many organizations in the region continued to offer segregated and congregated programs.

Getting to the bold decision: CLSMA’s Board was a forward-thinking group. Staff, board and community members started to think deeply about what life could be like for individuals moving back to the community and what kind of support they might need. They talked about choice, empowerment, dignity, individualization and the kind of community they wanted to live in. CLSMA sought out best practices and invited some of the leading researchers to St.Marys to share their insights. Stories proved powerful in helping board and staff to envision alternatives. As part of an inclusive planning process in 1986, which engaged various stakeholders connected to the organization, CLMSA considered the bold decision to move away from programs toward individualized services.

Questions for LeadersImplementing the bold decision: Since the planning process was such an inclusive one, resistance to the decision to stop delivering programs was limited. An implementation team comprised of staff, management, board members and others was tasked with designing a smooth transition. Key to the successful transition was the significant investment in training designed to shift mind-sets – including values-based, moral coherency, and site-based training. A new budget system with individualized budgets was introduced in 1989. New staff roles and job descriptions were developed in 1990. Finally, prior to shutting down CLSMA’s last program in 1995, every person supported had an individualized plan that included meaningful activities – e.g. paid employment, a volunteer role.

Results of the bold decision. Making a decision they believed in on a deep level, which set the organization on a different path compared with other agencies in the developmental services sector, has emboldened CLSMA. In subsequent years it has given the organization greater confidence in addressing other challenges

Today staff and board members remain highly attuned to their values and principles, and CLSMA appears closer to realizing its vision. Their work is embedded in the community and the community’s capacity and understanding of concepts such as inclusion and accessibility have grown. Today, if someone with a disability has a problem in the community, community members respond. CLSMA’s commitment to helping people lead a good life in the community means that staff and board are always thinking about how to do better…and this has fuelled innovation.

What does this tell us about bold decision making?

  • Bold decisions require a willingness to ask bold questions and engage in deep conversation
  • Learning from research and others’ stories can embolden an organization to make decisions that might be considered risky
  • Involving those impacted by a decision in the decision-making process can reduce resistance
  • Supporting people in embracing bold changes involves educating them

Why not go out on a limb... that's where the fruit is. Mark Twain

*Researchers and practitioners included John O’Brien, Connie Lyle, Marsha Forest, Jeff Strully, and Wolf Wolfensberger.

Related resources

  1. When Good is Not Good Enough”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2013
  2. Resilience and Adaptability – Creative destruction. SiG – Social Innovation Generation.

Ruth Armstrong and Sandi Trillo

Values: igniting boldness and creativity

We have worked with Participation House Support Services, London and Area (PHSS) for over 15 years on many projects. Each time we are impressed by their courage in the face of adversity and wicked challenges. Their mission: “PHSS supports individuals with developmental disabilities and/or complex physical needs to live in their own homes, participate in community and enjoy life with family and friends”.

What is it that enables PHSS to speak truth to power, to maintain a laser focus on what is precious despite budgetary constraints, and to do whatever it takes to support individuals and families? It’s as simple and as complex as being true to a set of values that guides every single organizational decision and action.

A deep commitment to values empowers everyone, from Board to staff to volunteers, to stand their ground when confronted by forces that threaten to drive the agency off course. PHSS stands their ground with grace and dignity. They respond to problems with creativity, collaboration and a solution-oriented can-do attitude.

Executive Director, Brian Dunne has always led PHSS from a strong vision and values platform. Up until a few years ago, PHSS had no formal strategic plan apart from its vision, mission and principles. The organization flourished and advanced its mission by focusing on creating alignment between its values and actions. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, supports such a practical approach to values, saying “The world’s most visionary organizations concentrate primarily on the process of alignment”.

                Image source; Aligning Action and Values by Jim Collins in                          Leader to Leader, No. 1 Summer 1996

In a recent interview Brian Dunne articulated how being person-centred and values-driven has benefited individuals and families and helped PHSS advance its mission. He noted that when an organization is true to its values, “you don’t lose your soul to money”. Cultivating a reputation for being values-driven can make it easier to deal with government funders because they know they can’t dictate how the organization operates (within legislated boundaries), that the primary “customer” is the client and that you’ll do whatever it takes to address their needs. When full funding is not available, PHSS finds creative ways to address the needs of individuals and families.

Staff and board members are committed to the values that drive PHSS. Staff are loyal to the individuals and families they support, and the organization. Many PHSS staff approach their work as an avocation that is more than a job; turnover is low and satisfaction is high. The Board reaches for PHSS’ values when making decisions and addressing difficult problems. The Board regularly revisits and re-establishes its commitment to the values so that everyone is aligned and prepared to defend PHSS principles – to funders, community, donors, elected politicians and other organizations.

How does PHSS do it?

  • They don’t just accept what they’re directed to do without question – they confirm compatibility with their values
  • They seek out partners with compatible values – e.g. a local developer who helped them build a four-unit home
  • Board and staff reference values when making decisions
  • They provide values-based training for staff
  • A Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach (engaging individuals and families in the evaluation process) is used to evaluate how their values are expressed through their programs and services
  • The Board pauses periodically to discuss, reflect on and re-commit to PHSS’ values
  • The leadership carries PHSS’ values into conversations with government (politicians and civil servants), community meetings and other organizations
  • They translate values into action! With boldness and creativity.

O’Reilly and Pfeffer’s research found that organizations that consistently report growth and positive results share three best practices:

  1. Clear, well-articulated set of values that are widely shared and act as the foundation for management practices.
  2. Remarkable degree of alignment and consistency in the people-centred practices that express their core values.
  3. Senior Managers are leaders whose primary role is to ensure that the values are maintained and constantly made real to all of the people who work in the organization.

Ruth and Sandi


  1. “Aligning Action and Values”, by Jim Collins, Leader to Leader, No. 1 Summer 1996
  2. “Hidden Value: How Great Companies Achieve Extraordinary Results with Ordinary People”, by Charles A. O’Reilly III and Jeffrey Pfeffer, Harvard Business Press, 2000