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Success Stories:

CDI HS makes a positive contribution to communities we serve! We collect highlights from local program and core staff to help us reflect upon our impact.

"The Binding Language of Values"

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Photo: ChildrenThe staff of a California nonprofit which consisted of native speakers of Spanish, Russian and English was rife with grievance, distrust, blame and confrontation. The authors’ nonprofit corporation, Community Development Institute Head Start (CDI HS), was brought in to manage and revitalize the organization. As a first step in rebuilding enthusiasm for and pride in the organization’s mission and fostering collaboration, we identified a need to draw out and build on the organization’s core values.

Convening an all-staff meeting — 100 people, including administrators to custodians — was the first step in establishing a new, more positive tone and rededication to the inherent values of the nonprofit service provider. The assembly’s pervasive mood was glum, guarded and skeptical. Participants sat with arms crossed, talking in hushed tones with their neighbors, not looking up to the front of the room. They filled seats from the back rows forward, leaving empty chairs, like a no-man’s-land, between linguistic factions. Mistrust and resignation were palpable. To add to the awkwardness, translators were required, so that every sentence had to be repeated twice — a process that tried the patience of an already impatient audience.

We designed the meeting using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) technique asking positive questions to elicit values through stories told in interviews. Participants conducted reciprocal interviews with one other person in the room. The basic instructions were: “Listen attentively; don’t interrupt or get distracted by thinking about what you’re going to say and don’t take over the conversation. Everyone will be interviewed; you’ll all have an opportunity to be heard.” Participants were sitting with people they knew, so grumbling and sour looks accompanied the instructions to pair up with someone they did not work with on a daily basis but who spoke their language.

Two questions comprised the interview. The first focused on a high point, a peak experience interviewees had while working in this organization or another. Interviewees told a story of their experience: who was involved, how it happened, what made it a peak experience. The second question asked them to talk about the positive contributions this organization can make in its community when functioning at its best.

Interviewing began quietly but soon became louder and very animated. Positive energy permeated the room. Most participants got caught up in listening and telling stories. Their body language shifted — they relaxed, uncrossed their arms and leaned in to one another.

After the interviews, participants retold their partners’ stories, which they did in three languages, translated twice, for the benefit of a now rapt and appreciative audience. Following the storytelling, the facilitator guided the group in extrapolating the values inherent in the stories. Inscribed inside a large heart on a flipchart, the values became a symbol of the organization’s core principles and now hangs in the administrative offices. Formerly deeply divided staff members began a process of collaboration and agreement leading to a productive and effective working environment.

Now enthusiastic converts to an outlook of positive intent, management initiated AI processes throughout individual departments. The result is a noticeable boost in morale, unprecedented cooperation among departments and organization wide performance improvement, as measured internally by self-assessments and externally by renewed invitations to collaborate with other community organizations.

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