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Be a Better Philanthropic Strategist: Hone your Tools for Navigating Values Conflicts

In my last post I argued that nonprofits and funders need to promote not just immediate policy change, but long-term culture shifts. Long-term culture shifts require a real mindset change toward working with more diverse partners and some different organizational skills: navigating values conflict with potential partners, creating internal buy-in, and structuring clear external boundaries.


Acquiring and honing this skillset empowers your organization to crystallize its core values, enhance strategy, and ultimately elevate overall effectiveness. Impressive, right?


This post will address values conflicts from the perspective of funders considering partners who are mission-aligned but who have some values differences. Recommendations here are primed for senior leadership or, if your organization structure is decentralized (teal in Laloux’s color theory paradigm), then modeled at the leadership level and supported for teams at the local level.

Navigating Values Conflict Isn't Easy, But It Is Worth It.

Frequently, humans find themselves in situations demanding the prioritization of one value over another, a discomforting but inevitable aspect of decision-making. Ignoring a values conflict doesn't resolve the issue. Better to acknowledge the conflict and proceed thoughtfully.


But this polarized moment makes it especially hard to acknowledge values conflicts, much less move through them productively. Americans hold “the other side” in contempt – and “the other side” is anyone who doesn’t agree on all things.


The prevailing notion that one can address every issue simultaneously, exclusively collaborate with perfect allies, and achieve lasting change without downsides perpetuates an unrealistic expectation. This expectation further complicates the landscape.


Instead, organizations can and should consider potential partnerships where missions are aligned but values conflicts exist.


In this post, I will illustrate how a fictional funder navigates a conflict between their stated values and organizational culture arising from a potential partnership.


The TLDR version: values conflicts always have a consequence, whether you ignore them or process through them to make a tough decision thoughtfully. Processing thoughtfully makes you a better strategist and strengthens your tool set. It’s worth it. I can help – contact me at 

The Situation

Here’s the real situation: rapid climate change is an existential crisis requiring rapid legislative response. However, the highly polarized political landscape, coupled with the perception of climate change as a concern primarily associated with the secular left, has led conservative Christian communities to distance themselves from supporting climate-sensitive policies. Given the significant voting influence within these communities, opposition to climate policies holds substantial sway over politicians and policy outcomes.


Grantees that could shift theologically conservative Christian communities in meaningful ways offer immense potential for impact. Some organizations, such as these two real-life organizations – Catholic Climate Covenant and the Evangelical Environmental Network – come to climate-forward thinking through a holistically pro-life theology and a view of the universe as God’s creation. They are effective changemakers within the context of their religious communities.


Our fictional funder, the Climate Catastrophe Prevention Fund, wants to promote bold climate-change legislation in the U.S., but hesitates to work with conservative Christian climate-change organizers. If they walk away, they walk away from significant impact potential and should probably revise their mission. If they choose to partner, they will have to do some internal work to build buy-in and external work to make the partnerships effective.

The Process

The Fund leadership first reviews the mission statements for alignment. The following are the mission statements of the fictional Fund and the two real grantees.

o	Climate Catastrophe Prevention Fund supports grassroots organizations that empower people to demand climate-forward legislation at the local, state, and federal levels that exceed the Paris Agreement benchmarks. o	The mission of Catholic Climate Covenant is to inspire and mobilize the U.S. Catholic community to care for creation and achieve climate justice through the lens of integral ecology.  o	Evangelical Environmental Network inspires, equips, educates, and mobilizes evangelical Christians to love God and others by rediscovering and reclaiming the Biblical mandate to care for creation and working toward a stable climate and a healthy, pollution-free world.

The review identifies a robust alignment in missions. The Fund, alongside the Catholic and Evangelical organizations, shares a common goal of empowering grassroots action, with a specific emphasis on community mobilization outlined in their respective mission statements. Furthermore, all three organizations are dedicated to environmental protection and the promotion of a stable climate.


Despite the strong alignment in missions, the Fund faces a challenge due to its internally progressive social and political culture. The predominant staff culture leans towards secularism, leading to some discomfort in contemplating partnerships with deeply religious organizations. To navigate this, the Fund takes a closer look at values, examining both publicly stated values and engaging in open, honest conversations to foster understanding and alignment.

o	The Fund: Impact, Data, and Justice. The funder’s internal culture is socially and politically progressive. o	CCC’s stated values are: Catholic Faith, Collaboration, Hope, Working for Justice, Leadership.  o	EEN’s value statement is: Because God created human beings in his image, every human life from conception to death bears the image of God and has inestimable worth (Genesis 1:27). Therefore, Christians must be committed to a consistent ethic of life that safeguards the essential nature of human life at all stages, with a special concern to protect the lives of the most vulnerable. The unborn, the very young, the aged, those living in poverty, the chronically or terminally ill, those with disabilities and those with genetic diseases deserve our particular care and protection. Our public policy agenda should reflect these broad commitments

Assessing Values Conflicts

The Climate Catastrophe Prevention Fund reviews how each stated value aligns with these two potential partners.


Both potential partners have incredible impact potential through their ability to mobilize an otherwise strongly contrary voting bloc. The Fund is excited by the potential impact.


The Fund finds that both potential partners are data-driven. The organizations are familiar with the latest scientific findings and public policy movements, know their own communities, and can show what strategies work to change voting behavior. The Fund finds no conflict over data.


Justice can’t be quantified, is highly subjective, and is itself a polarized term. To some in the Fund, Justice means accountability to or centering the needs of the most marginalized, to others, it means punishment of the most responsible for destruction. The term Justice is also associated with wider progressive values that the potential partner’s theological viewpoints may challenge. Leadership identifies two concerns:

  1. Money granted could be used for other projects in line with the grantee organizations’ holistically pro-life stance.

  2. The grantee organizations may practice or promote ways of being incompatible with Justice, for example, that they are part of broader communities that have committed or are committing violence against women, people of color, Indigenous communities and people of other religions.


The first concern is easily solved. Both grantee organizations explicitly approach their work through a holistic pro-life lens. Outside of abortion and birth control, their values around the need to protect human life align strongly with progressive values. For example, both organizations are culturally opposed to the death penalty and support care for the very young or the elderly.


Also, neither organization engages in advocacy or lobbying about abortion or birth control. They confirm this in conversation.


As a precaution, the Fund decides that, if they proceed with the partnerships, they would include a clause in the grant agreements that the money can not support advocacy or lobbying on these topics. More on strategies like this in the final post in this series!


The second concern is thornier because perception of harm done is so personal and the variety and degree of harm is great. This conflict revolves around values, particularly the vaguely defined value of Justice, which is heavily influenced by a broader progressive culture that demands perfection from allies. Consequently, the Fund finds itself in a situation where its values of Impact and Data are at odds with its value of Justice, shaped by the cultural expectations within the organization.


Both the Catholic Church and Evangelical communities have fraught histories. Even though the individual organizations are not affiliated with sexual abuse cover-ups or anti-democratic actions, they remain openly affiliated with these wider communities. I'm not suggesting that these organizations are in any way at fault for such abuses, but there is a perception of complicity among staff at the Fund. This is where the Fund will need to prioritize their values and culture.

Prioritizing Values Exercise

There are no right answers to how to prioritize values, but engaging in this exercise allows the Fund to gain a deeper understanding of themselves, make informed decisions, and refine their mission. With alignment on two values and potential conflict on a third, the Fund is confronted with two options: prioritize Impact and Data over Justice, or prioritize Justice over Impact and Data. The choice becomes pivotal in shaping the organization's direction.

Here’s how those play out:

In this example, the Fund finds that they have work to do either way.

If they prioritize Justice first, they will need to revise their mission statement. If they choose to value Impact and Data first, they will need to do internal work to allow staff to adjust and external work to maintain strong relationships with their new grantees. In both scenarios, I would still recommend that they revise their values statement to clarify what “Justice” means to them so that they can act more effectively.

Whichever course the Climate Catastrophe Prevention Fund chooses, they will have strengthened their self-understanding and their strategic effectiveness.


In my next two posts, I’ll talk about strategies for the internal work around buy-in and internal work around boundaries.


If your organization is facing a values conflict and could use some support in navigating it, please reach out to me at Cohesion Strategy. I can be booked for board or staff facilitation, presentations, or strategic support.


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