Working on political and social issues naturally sensitises us to certain dynamics of the world around us – allowing us to recognise the economic or power structures that underpin social behaviours and political institutions. Understanding how values and frames work adds another dimension – opening a range of new avenues for analysis, exploration and intervention.

Values, then, are one important influence on our actions and the way we see the world. Understanding them reveals a major underlying connection between a vast array of major issues – racism, human rights, community welfare, women’s empowerment, youth exclusion, biodiversity loss, sustainability. Concern and behaviours related to these problems are all associated with a set of related values. Such an understanding also reveals an important way in which progress on these issues is influenced by education, the media, and other social institutions. Values are engaged and strengthened by our experiences – and we are all a part of each other’s experience, whether we like it or not.

It is therefore important to ask what values we want to endorse, and what the implications will be for the issues we care about. The answers to many of these questions may be fairly intuitive, in line with what we currently do, or slot easily into our current areas of activity; others may run counter to our existing practices. Hopefully, however, this understanding will also open up new opportunities for exploration and further work – in how we organise, how we engage with others, and what we call for.

Collateral damage

One major consideration is that a whole range of our activities are likely to have had important effects we may not previously have acknowledged. One approach that has recently gained ground, for instance, is to tailor communications to appeal to the dominant motivations of different groups of people. Volunteering, educational activities and charitable giving may be presented as opportunities for freebies or personal gain. Environmental behaviour change may thus be sold via ‘eco-chic’ for status-conscious people, or opportunities to save cash for the frugal. Similarly, human rights appeals may be ‘sold’ on the basis that human rights abuses make us (and people like us) less safe.

This approach has helped by highlighting the importance of understanding motivational differences between different groups – and can be successful in achieving some goals. But it is also likely to have brought about significant ‘collateral damage’. Because values seem to become stronger with repeated ‘engagement’, such appeals are actually likely to reinforce precisely those values that impede lasting change.

Meeting people where they are

Continuing to reinforce extrinsic values in people’s motivations is therefore likely to have unintended consequences. At the same time, though, a person’s dominant values – which will sometimes be extrinsically-oriented – may well cause them to react negatively to anything seen as directly oppositional to their dominant value-set.

Additionally, the way people express their values may be constrained in particular ways. This may include the normalising of particular behaviours by the media or other institutions, consumer culture, or financial constraints. So even if people prioritise intrinsic values, there may be limited opportunities to pursue related activities where they live or work. A person may believe community and equality are important, but be unfamiliar (and initially uncomfortable) with using democratic processes in the workplace. Equally, people express their values in different ways: some will be used to giving money to causes they care about, others devoting creative time, others simply taking part in discussions.

Meeting people where they are will therefore be important in engaging them, with a view to ultimately creating spaces for change and facilitating the flourishing of more intrinsic values. This means making the most of the shared knowledge and experience we already have on how to initiate and maintain engagement with those around us; thinking about the language and media we use, and the places we work.

Towards a new approach: some guiding principles

Aligning our work with the values that are likely to spur lasting change is clearly unlikely to be a uniformly quick or easy process. Outlined below, however, are some initial guiding principles that will be important in helping us shape our activities in the short, medium and long term.

1. Explore values

Values and frames open up new avenues for analysis, exploration and intervention: how they are expressed in economic structures, underpin behaviour and institutions, and emerge in our own strategies and practices.

2. Nurture intrinsic values

No aspect of our work is ever entirely value-free, instead both embodying and reinforcing certain values and frames. We should therefore aim not only to promote intrinsic values in communications but to embed them across all areas of our work.

3. Challenge extrinsic values

Various elements of our society and culture help foster the desire for wealth, social recognition and power – and simultaneously diminish care for people and the environment. Addressing these will be essential in making progress.

4. See the big picture

The benefits of appeals to extrinsic values – in motivating rapid or significant policy changes – may occasionally outweigh the ‘collateral damage’ they cause. Without a clear understanding of values, however, we will not be able to identify and manage these trade-offs effectively. We must not lose sight of the big picture, and a vision of long-term, systemic change, with a clear understanding of the values that will underpin it.

5. Work together

Clearly, no one group or organisation is likely to have much of an impact in shifting values on its own. We need to cooperate and collaborate – both within and across different sectors – to be effective. Because diverse issues are linked by the values that underpin them, we will be continually supporting each other through our efforts.


1. Living values: A report encouraging boldness in third sector organisations was published in 2006. It explored the values of civil society through a series of workshops in which participants discussed personal and organisational values, such as ‘empowering people’ and ‘transforming lives’. They discussed threats to these values (which they agreed came largely from within their organisations) such as top-down organisational approaches and short-termism, and recommended putting values front and centre of all of their activities.

2. WWF’s Natural Change Project ‘drew together seven diverse individuals from the business, charitable, arts, public, health and education sectors in Scotland’ who were all skilled communicators, and who were described as ‘light green’. Through a series of residential workshops and reflective blogging, participants were encouraged to ‘think deeply’ about sustainability. The experiences appeared to have a profound impact on the participants: who reported having been affected on a deeper level than they had by any more traditional campaign, and had taken away a strengthened connection with nature and sustainability issues more widely, and a desire to share this with others. This resulted in substantial behaviour changes and organising events themselves.

3. The Equality Trust highlight and campaign to address the detrimental effects of inequality on society. Inequality seems to promote extrinsic values across the population – and not just in poorer groups – by promoting feelings of insecurity, and drives consumerism by cultivating self-enhancing aspirations. These processes drive feelings of stress and anxiety; poor health outcomes such as obesity and heart disease; higher levels of consumption and less sustainable lifestyles. In addition to addressing inequality head on, they identify other points of intervention such as advertising and parts of the media, which play a large role in perpetuating and reinforcing these kinds of values.

4. The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change provides a good illustration of the issue of trade-offs. Its release presented commentators and civil society with a number of relevant concerns to focus on. Many reinforced the dominant framing – concentrating on the purely economic costs of climate change and the economic benefits of addressing it. An alternative frame – many of the features of which were also present in the Stern Review – was available to them, however: a focus on the ethical dimensions, including the negative impacts for people and the natural world. The dominant frame may well have promoted extrinsic values, but also made bigger headlines – bringing more attention to the issues. The alternative may have received less attention, but resisted reinforcing what could be a deeply unhelpful frame – instead encouraging the expression of more intrinsic concerns.

For a longer discussion of the Stern Review click here.

5. The Robin Hood Tax has successfully rallied a diverse set of groups, organisations and individuals – including religious groups, big NGOs, smaller civil society organisations, trade unions, economists, and private sector representatives – around the otherwise unlikely cause of financial sector reform. With a clear and strong main message – a levy on financial sector transactions – the campaign has succeeded in drawing together a huge number of causes, from child poverty and public services in the UK to global maternal health and climate change. Importantly, the campaign also draws on a potent frame: the culturally archetypal figure of Robin Hood, who embodies the idea of redistribution as social justice.

Working for change

There is power in aligning what we say we value and what we show we value. There are likely numerous areas that we work in where reflecting the values we wish to promote would be effective and beneficial to the issues we care about: outlined below are a few thoughts on what these might be.

Communication, education, facilitation

Taking values into account doesn’t detract from the importance of the messages we communicate. However, doing so should highlight the values embedded in all aspects of the experience of that message: in the setting, the frames, the level of participation it offers, and the messenger. The type, and depth, of engagement is also significant. A low-involvement experience – reading a leaflet, for instance – is likely to engage with values fairly superficially; while top-down communications may stifle the expression and development of self-direction values. First-hand experience and deeper involvement are likely to have a much greater impact, and self-direction values are more likely to be engaged where self-expression and critical thought are facilitated and encouraged.

Example: Carbon Conversations Groups offer supportive and non-judgemental spaces for people to ‘connect, explore and then act on climate change’. Six facilitated group meetings take people through trust-building exercises, discussion and exploration of carbon footprints and lifestyles, and information sharing. The depth of engagement, the openness of the experience, and the encouragement to share and explore the emotional as well as rational responses to the challenges ahead all reflect the intrinsic values embodied in the desire to address environmental issues.

Example: Oxfam’s ‘Be Humankind’ campaign taps into the benevolence value of kindness, while evoking the wider perspective of ‘humankind’ – aiming to harness and promote intrinsic values more broadly. It also addresses supporters with a call to action as part of a wider human community.

Advocacy, lobbying and policy work

Institutions, policies and social structures play a central role in shaping our lived experience. How can we find out what the full impact of these might be, taking values into account? There are values embedded in the use of economic indicators as a proxy for societal success, for instance. What policies could better embody the appreciation of others and of nature, creativity, and fair opportunities for all?

Example: Mumsnet, the online parenting network, have recently sought to counter the objectification of women and the sexualisation of children’s culture through campaigns against the marketing of ‘lads’ mags’ and sexualising content to children. These issues are strongly associated with extrinsic values, including power and concern for image, as well as unhealthy behaviours such as eating disorders. Working with a wide variety of actors such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, politicians, health foundations and associations, and the Girl Guides, the campaign has provided a strong and consistent voice on the ethics of these issues. Campaigns such as these may help combat the normalisation of extrinsic values.

Organisation, supporters, finance and fundraising

People’s overall experience of organisations will serve to reinforce particular values – and not always those being explicitly promoted. Our relationship with the people we work with can therefore be important. Holding a participatory meeting in a community space embodies very different values from a formal meeting encouraging deference to hierarchical structures. Similarly, financially successful models or techniques often allow limited scope for engagement with those you’re working with (and often have a high churn of members, supporters or employees). An example is the civil society model of professionalised ‘protest businesses’ with direct debits as the deepest level of engagement. What organisational models best embody the values we wish to promote?

Example: The Camp for Climate Action Participation was embedded in the Camp at a deep level, through national, regional and local decision-making groups. While in practice participation was inevitably limited by factors such as available time, mobility and experience, in principle the decision-making process was open to all, and encouraged direct participation on a horizontal, democratic basis. The human and natural impacts of issues were the focus of discussions, and non-violent, direct and creative action was encouraged.

Example: The fundraising department at the Centre for Alternative Technology have recently started applying a values approach to their work. Firstly, they have begun to foster a culture of non-competitiveness and cooperation, focused on honesty and integrity, both within the department and with other organisations. They have begun removing extrinsic values and frames from both their internal and external communications: for instance, emphasising the work that needs doing, not whether it’s ‘value for money’. Focus groups have been set up to explore CAT’s work, donors’ reasons for giving, and ways to deepen donor engagement. Lastly, they are looking at new ways to measure progress, including staff retention and satisfaction, and donor engagement.

Creation and action

Creation and engagement in practical activities, particularly the promotion of creativity for its own sake (and not for rewards or recognition), are often strongly related to self-direction values, which in turn tend to be strongly related to values supportive of social and environmental justice. While many projects embody this ethos and these values already, there may be more points where more people can be encouraged, engaged and included.

Example: Forest Schools aim to ‘encourage and inspire through positive outdoor experiences’. Children of all ages regularly visit local woodlands, are given opportunities to learn about the environment and are encouraged to use their own initiative in exploring and problem-solving. Through creating engaging and achievable tasks, Forest Schools aim to promote self-awareness, appreciation of nature, and social and emotional intelligence.

Example: Depave is a US-based organisation which aims to get rid of unnecessary paved areas and create community green spaces in their place. The reasoning is two-fold: concrete, they claim, exacerbates the detachment of people from nature, as well as contributing to storm-water pollution. The recruitment of volunteers is aligned with their mission: only the above reasons are given to encourage applications, and there is no mention of additional reward of any sort. In 2009, 275 volunteers ‘depaved’ 29,300 square feet of land and created six community green spaces, three sustainable schoolyards, and sixty-five garden plots.

Support and communities

Support and community services could promote self-direction values and be carried out in highly compassionate ways; at other times they may promote conformity, social order, and deference to authority. If the end goal is the care of others (related to intrinsic values), then ensuring the values embodied are aligned with the methods may be important; if not, they may erode the very values and outcomes strived for.

Example: Community Links are an East London group working with disadvantaged communities. Their mission is to “To generate change. To tackle causes not symptoms, find solutions not palliatives. To recognise that we need to give as well as to receive and to appreciate that those who experience a problem understand it best… To distinguish between the diversity that enriches society and the inequalities that diminish it. To grow – but all to build a network not an empire… To never do things for people but to guide and support, to train and enable, to simply inspire.” To these ends, they work, embedded in communities, alongside schools, public services and communities themselves. They provide support and advice for gaining skills and employment for adults and youth, child care and play, planting and growing, and other community development; as well as having established a school for excluded students – which succeeded in enabling every student to go on to acquire further skills, education or employment last year. As well as a deep engagement with local issues, they consistently lobby for both national and international policy change.

Example: Friends of the Earth Rights and Justice Team focus on communities ‘worst affected by environmental problems and least empowered in decision-making’. Using legal and practical advisers, they engage and give ongoing support and training to these communities. They link the environmental justice issues faced by communities in the UK, such as areas of London, with those faced by those in other parts of the world suffering environmental degradation. Explicit in their actions – bringing forward smaller legal cases and delivering skills training, for instance – is a ‘big-picture’ perspective, and the goal of addressing wider, more systemic issues. They focus entirely on the human (health and other social) and environmental impacts. The ‘justice’ frame draws on intrinsic values such as equality and freedom, as well as the legal dimension of the issues they work on.

Spaces for change

There are values embedded in how we – as individuals and organisations – interact with each other and the wider world. Below are outlined some thoughts on the implications of this.

How we organise ourselves

The physical spaces and organisational structures we work within are an important part of our lived experience, so it’s sensible to ask what values they currently help to strengthen. Do the groups and organisations we are a part of – and the ways we interact with each other – embody the values underpinning our own work?

How we engage with others

The wider world’s experience of our organisations – whether through events, services, fundraisers or campaigns – will help to strengthen certain values. Do the messages and experiences we create embody values that are likely to motivate lasting concern about the issues we work on?

What we call for

The changes our groups and organisations work to bring about will have effects beyond those that are more direct or obvious, ultimately serving to strengthen certain values. We must therefore ask what the value impacts of the policies, institutions and practices we advocate will be.

Degrees of change

The way we choose to engage with this agenda, and the way we sequence changes, will vary, but can be conceived of as different depths of change.

Building momentum

Mapping and scrutinising the drivers of different values, and starting to work together more. Thinking about new benchmarks for measuring progress and success.

Structural changes

Aligning values across our communications; challenging unhelpful frames. Rethinking our organisations so that the overall experience of them – for employees, leaders, and those we work with – embodies the values we want to promote.

Cementing systemic change

Pushing for policies that foster intrinsic values, and confronting entrenched institutions and norms that reinforce extrinsic values.

Richard Hawkins6. Implications