By Lynda Mansson, Director General, MAVA Foundation

At some stage, every organization will face the challenge of adapting while not losing sight of who they are. Changes to the operating context, changes in leadership, the need to professionalize, or new strategies will force an organization to rethink how it works.

MAVA was founded as a vehicle for the personal passions of Dr. Luc Hoffmann, a dedicated naturalist. He had views about conservation and philanthropy that carried through to the work at MAVA and he worked closely with the Director General at the time, Jean-Paul Taris. In 2010, Luc took a step back from running the foundation and handed over the reins to his son André Hoffmann.

André is equally dedicated to the natural world, but had his own views on how best to accomplish MAVA’s mission. This brought about major evolution in our strategy and how we prioritized our grant-making.

New leadership team

Around this same time of transition is when I joined the organization as Director General. Naturally the new leadership team of André/Lynda came with different backgrounds, styles and ways of seeing the world compared to the Luc/Jean-Paul team. A key mandate I was given was to professionalize the organization.

One of the first things I did as new DG was to go on a listening tour speaking with MAVA stakeholders and hearing what they had to say. A recurrent theme was concern about losing the great parts of how MAVA worked in the transition towards a more professional structure.

Defining our values

André and I shared this concern as well and set about thinking of how to make sure we could stick to our core while evolving as required. This led to defining our core set of values.

These values were meant to simultaneously capture the ‘spirit of Luc’ (‘Luc-ness’) as well as express our aspiration for how to operate into the future – without somehow turning the foundation into a ‘mausoleum to Luc’. They became our core guiding principles and frequently came into play as we made decisions.

Living our values

The exercise of defining values is often a rote process that produces something generic that could apply to any organization and then gets filed away in a drawer never to be seen again. At MAVA we took this set of values seriously as a way of building on our authentic roots. To this day we refer to them frequently in our conversations. Stop and ask any MAVA staff member and chances are high that they can tell you what the four values are.

In our regular foundation reviews – conducted every few years to hear from our partners how we are doing – they consistently report that we are living our values in our interactions with them. This tells us that our values are not just aspirational but are truly embedded in our way of working.

Every organization must evolve over time or face becoming irrelevant

While our particular situation as a foundation is rather unique, there is a strong parallel with many NGOs we work with. Often the beginnings of an NGO come from someone idealistic and charismatic, who rallies others to a cause. They start as a scrappy and passion-driven group. Over time, the organization grows, hires more staff, raises more funds and expands its work. The challenge is the same: to retain the early spirit that motivated a small passionate team, and yet grow and professionalize to stay relevant and effective.

Making this step-change is one where many organizations fail. The many aspects of managing this evolution can be the subject of another long blog, but defining the organization’s core values is essential to the process.

So what are some of the tips for doing this well?

✿ Values need to be uncovered through an orchestrated process involving careful listening, brainstorming, and debate. Having one person create and impose a set of values will not work and most likely will not match how the organization actually works. It helps to have a common understanding of the need for a set of values. In our case it was the need to evolve into MAVA 2.0 while being intentional about what to keep from MAVA 1.0 .

✿ Leadership needs to be fully on board and prepared to integrate and defend the values. If the leader thinks the idea of values is silly but agrees to have a set because people want them or she is told they are needed, you can guess how well those values will stick. I distinctly remember a powerful speech from André to the staff about how much the values meant to him. This had a huge impact in embedding the importance of the values. At the time someone remarked that it was the first time they really understood the power and use of organizational values.

✿ Define what the values actually mean. We have all seen cases of different people interpreting the same word in their own way. Make the meaning of your values explicit and understood. This should generate active debate and (hopefully) resolution.

✿ Weave the values into everything – into your people management, into your relationships with stakeholders, into your everyday tasks and conversations.

✿ Ideally your values will help guide decision-making, empowering staff at all levels to use them as guideposts in their own work.

Who are you

Ultimately your set of values should define who you are and your culture. This will help you be explicit on which parts of your origins should stay with you and which parts need to evolve.

In our case, defining the ‘Luc-ness’ we wanted to retain helped reassure our partners and staff that we would still be the same friendly open organization, even while evolving into some new.