• Braden Swab

Understand Your Values; Set Your Project Up For Success

Updated: Feb 4

Unfortunately, a lot of non-profit construction projects get started off on the wrong foot. Or, I should say, the wrong step.


Perhaps someone around one of your programs has said, “Hey, we should build a ________”. Everyone is excited, and soon the conversation shifts to, “How can we get this done?” This is the common question, which does need to be answered eventually on any project: the “How?” question.


Or, even one step earlier, a shortcoming of your program space is identified and the logical follow-up question is, “What do we actually need?” Those involved excitedly discuss the options and dream of what could be. This, of course, is the “What?” question.


But there’s a step before you get to the “What?” and the “How?” that is crucial to your project’s success and even its efficiency (read: cost and schedule). It’s the best first question; often the hardest to answer and the easiest to skip. Perhaps you’ve guessed already: it’s the “Why?”


There are two key categories that contribute to the “Why?” of your project. The first, which we will talk about here, deals with assessing and reaffirming your values – both from an organizational perspective and a program perspective. The second deals with expected outcomes, which I will cover in the next post as we set goals for the impact of your project.


So…values. I’m not going to give you a long-winded definition of what values are, what your values should be, or how to create a culture around those values. There are tons of good resources out there to help you do that. And, if you haven’t gone through that basic value-setting process already, stop what you’re doing now and do that first. Setting and instilling your values throughout your organization is vital to your sustainability and a prerequisite to any building project.


Assuming you have some idea about your values already, you might be asking, “Why should we spend time on this now? We could be doing something!” I hear you. A lot of the leaders I’ve met are dreamers and doers. Like I said – this is the easiest part to skip. But it’s so important that you don’t.



Why is it so important? Here are three key reasons:



Reaffirming your values unifies your team


I’m not a fan of icebreakers or kitschy team-building exercises. Everyone feels awkward. Very few are truly honest; everyone is worried about what others will think of them. They’re not typically very productive. They often feel forced (“Does anyone really want to be doing this?”)


Why not do something that builds your team and moves you forward at the same time? Discussing your values together as a team will help develop a deeper understanding of each other and the organization, and expose gaps in your culture. Ultimately, it will help set you up for future project success.



Reaffirming your values prepares you to make important decisions quickly and effectively


Your “why” will form the foundation for your decision-making. Any construction project will require an almost overwhelming amount of decisions: budget, financing, design, fundraising (by the way, this step will be incredibly helpful for grant applications and fundraising campaigns), communications, schedule, personnel, on and on it goes. Some of these decisions may be more logistical in nature, but your values drive them all on some level.


Starting any large-project discussion with a review, and perhaps a reassessment, of your values will make your decisions more cohesive, focused, and reliable.



Reaffirming your values mid-project can cost you more and delay project completion


The fact is: a solid understanding of your values will be required at many points in any building project. The “design” stage will force you to prioritize your organizational or program needs. The fundraising stage will require you to effectively and succinctly communicate your values to build trust between you and potential supporters.


There’s a good chance you will feel the need to review and affirm your values at some point in your project life cycle anyways.


If you complete this value review mid-project, you will almost certainly find that it should have been done earlier. Maybe you have to pay your architect to redesign something to better reflect your clarified priorities. Perhaps your first fundraising campaign was a poor reflection of your values, and you need to make up for lost momentum.


Worst of all: perhaps the entire project doesn’t quite fit with your set of values like you thought it would. Now, you’ve sunk time, energy, and funding into an endeavor that misses the mark.


Avoid these project pitfalls. Identify and unify around your values, your “Why?”, before anything else.



Action Step: Guided Values Discussion Exercise


Completing an exercise around your core values can help avoid future headaches and set you up for success. There are lots of ways to do this, but here’s one idea to try. Do this exercise as a team. This team could be your staff members, a program/project team, a board of directors, a strategic development team, or a building committee.


At Engineering Ministries International (aka. “EMI” aka. my other gig), we started 2021 with this exercise. It is important that this exercise includes key organizational/program decision-makers.



Step 1


Have everyone answer a few questions related to your mission, vision, and core values individually, prior to any meetings. Some example questions include:


  • Why does (your organization/program) exist?

  • What about (your organization’s/program’s) mission and vision speaks to you?

  • What are (your organization’s/program’s) most fundamental values?

  • Is there anything that (your organization/program) values too much? Or not enough? Please identify and explain.

  • If (your organization) stopped valuing (core value), what would the consequences be?

  • What is the most important thing (your organization/program) accomplishes?

  • What strategy does (your organization/program) use to accomplish this?

  • What is the biggest roadblock (your organization/program) faces?

You can tailor the question list to your organization and/or program as you see fit. You don’t need to answer all of these. In fact, I would encourage you to choose five at most. Any more, and your team may rush through their answers. Feel free to add your own questions as well.


Set a target amount of time for your team to complete their answers (say 45-60 minutes) and a deadline. You want thoughtful answers, but not essays.



Step 2


Have everyone submit their answers to a facilitator. The facilitator will compile the answers (keeping answers anonymous) into one document and distribute it to the rest of the team. Give everyone time to read through the compiled answers before scheduling a meeting.



Step 3


Meet together and discuss your thoughts question-by-question. Assign someone to be a note-taker and someone (ideally part of the leadership team) to be a facilitator. A good facilitator will guide the discussion with insightful follow-up questions and will steer the group away from distracting tangents or side conversations.



Step 4


Summarize the answers and discussion into a one- or two-page document. Did anything surprise you? Is there anything missing? Add an executive summary at the top and action items at the end. This summary document can be used later to contribute to any subsequent project’s business case and/or charter documents.



Your values not only form the foundation of your organization, they form the foundation of your projects as well. A clear understanding of your values will help you unify your team, make quick and effective decisions, and avoid project inefficiencies. Before asking “What?” or “How?”, make sure you and your team are understand your “Why?”

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Braden Swab is the founder and sole operator of Tree Stream Consulting. After more than seven years helping international charities design and plan their facilities with a Canadian charity called Engineering Ministries International (EMI), Braden is using what he learned to help non-profits in North America. He is a passionate problem-solver, advocate, and story-teller.