Values: Your Internal Operating System

all about meWe give to the people, places and things that we care deeply about. And our ability to be generous starts with appreciation and gratitude. Philanthropy is love in action. Aligning our actions with our passions and values enables our giving to become increasingly powerful and intentional.

Yet many of us haven’t quite figured this alignment out. Or we realize that the alignment is always shifting as our lives change, and our giving hasn’t caught up with the new territory we’re in. It becomes especially challenging as we build our families and find that our personal passions aren’t shared by our spouse or kids, or by our extended families who might question where we’re spending our resources of time, money, attention and skills.

Developing a solid values framework allows you stand strong in your commitment to see change occur over time – to be an advocate for the long run, not swayed by popular opinion or a newly highlighted charity. Find your thing and stick with it. Especially today, when we are being bombarded at every moment with new things to careaboutdeeply, it helps to focus.

When you begin to cultivate your philanthropy (which is simply your desire and ability to give of yourself), you recognize that your passion is integral to becoming a genuinely generous person, who acts not out of obligation but a willingness to give. And your passions are cradled within your values. Being an informed philanthropist starts with knowing yourself.

Here’s a quick and easy exercise to identify your values: circle 10 of the values listed in the chart below (and/or add your own).


Great. Now cross out 5 of them. When I run this exercise with groups of people, I hear a lot of groaning here. You can do it! Get focused.

Now cross out another 2, so that you have 3 core values. Yes, this is even more frustrating. How can you go from 10 to 3 values? All of these values are meaningful and you just can’t possibly cut them down further. I’m not asking you to remove a leg. Often you’ll find that one or two of the values fit neatly up and under the final value you chose. This is fair and legal in my universe. But reduce down to the three and write them down.

Look at these three words. Consider what they mean to you. How would you define them for yourself? When taken together, what images do they conjure up? Reflect on how they show up in your life and why they’re important. How does each one support the other to create a three dimensional portrait of what you’re passionate about? Let’s say your values are education, growth and justice. And you’ve been on the sidelines watching discussions of equity and charter schools and lack of funding. As you review these values and think through how these weave into your life, you might realize that rather than volunteering in the classroom, you’d like to run for school board or join the PTA advocacy committee. Your passion is more than just being at school with your own children, but affecting systemic change for all children.

Passions start within your set of values. What you perceive has value in your world greatly determines what kind of change you want to see and how you will apply yourself to supporting that change. Often our values are playing out implicitly throughout the day, without us being aware of them. Making them explicit, being informed about your internal operating system, is a powerful way to focus your energy toward what you care deeply about.

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