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What exactly are values? Like the word purpose or community, the word “values” is overused and yet underdefined. Better yet, what are online community values and how can you determine them?

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5 min

Carrie Melissa Jones
Nuala Cronin

The 3-Step Guide to Determining Your Online Community Values

4 minute read

June 2, 2021

What exactly are values? Like the word purpose or community, the word “values” is overused and yet underdefined. Better yet, what are online community values and how can you determine them?

Values are the beliefs that we hold that, ideally, determine our daily actions and decisions. Aligning your values with your actions is how you live with integrity. For many individuals, however, values and actions become mismatched. Whether because of outside pressures, lack of self-awareness, or a misunderstanding of which values guide us, we can fall out of integrity.

Similarly, communities can fall out of integrity with their stated values. This unfortunate phenomenon often occurs within brand communities. And what happens when our values and actions misalign at a community level? Loss of trust. Frustrated members. Lack of engagement. Total disaster or nothing but crickets. 

So how do you refine and then operate by a strong set of values in your community? Well, let's start with the why and then jump into action.

Why Online Community Values Matter

The importance of community values cannot be ignored. Values matter because they help you understand how you are going to pursue your purpose while standing behind the many decisions that will get you there. Your purpose may be to "unite community professionals," but there are about 10 organizations out there claiming to do that right now, and none of them are the same. What separates them? Their values, both stated and enacted. So, your values are your key differentiator. 

You need five community values and, ideally, no more. The more values, the harder it is to know which ones take priority. This means that it is far more likely that your stated and enacted values will misalign. Thus, the fewer, the better.

Where do you Begin?

If you are anything like my clients, you have a list of values that you haven't looked at in a while and are unsure if everyone agrees on. Recently, while working with a client, I had everyone on their board submit what they believed the organization's values were. Altogether, over 30 values emerged. When we tried to prioritize them, we couldn't agree on which to center.

However, over 30 minutes and some honest conversation, we had done it: we got down to 5 values that would guide every action.

So here's how you do just that.

Step 1: Gather all values

First, gather all the potential values your organization might want for the community. As described above, you can have everyone anonymously submit what they believe to be the values to generate a long list. Alternatively, you can bring everyone together to generate a list in a live workshop.

If you (or your stakeholders) feel stuck and don't know what are examples of community values, or where to begin listing yours, consider a few scenarios:

  1. How might you deal with a conflict between two members in a community, in which one member claims that another has harmed them? What values would help you mediate a conversation between the two people?

  2. You have a limited budget for your upcoming conference. How do you decide how to allocate the funds? What values help you make decisions about how to spend the budget you have?

  3. You’re determining the look and feel of your community’s landing page for newcomers. What values help you determine the proper colors, iconography, images, and copy you will include?

Step 2: Determine which values are primary and secondary 

Once you have a long list, it’s time to begin sorting through all the options. I like to lay out all the values in a bullseye diagram and move the values around on a MURAL template. The values that are closest to the center of the bullseye are primary, and those farther out are the secondary values and even tertiary values. 

Now it’s time to have some real conversation about these values. Move values that are similar next to each other and determine which is a better, more descriptive word for your case. Hold values up next to one another and ask if both are necessary. Keep doing this until you whittle down the list to no more than five. 

Step 3: Define your terms 

It’s important to define the community values you have chosen. Your team may define values differently than you do individually. Define the words and state an example of the value in action. This then makes the values teachable so that other team members can use them to make decisions. 

>> How do I write a Strategic Purpose Statement for my Community? >>

One Important Tip

There is one critical tip to keep in mind when writing your values: Avoid words that do not help you make strong decisions. Words like “open-mindedness,” “intelligence,” or “kindness” generally are unhelpful community values. This is because no community leader sets out to create a close-minded, dumb, or unkind community. Sure, it happens, let’s be real, but no one would ever state those as values. Therefore, these words generally do not help you make strong decisions. Instead, choose words with richer meanings. Some examples include “playfulness,” “intuition,” or “security.” These words have some potential opposites (seriousness, logic, or experimentation) that you can envision other communities stating. This is how you create something unique in a noisy landscape.

Want to hear more from Carrie Melissa Jones? Check out this webinar on The Science of Increased Community Participation.

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Community

Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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