Values are like muscles: the more we use them, the stronger they become.
Funders can be powerful, heavy lifters as cultural influencers, and therefore have big potential to reinforce pro-social values. But at the moment, the values we need for fair and sustainable societies – such as equality, peace, helpfulness and social justice – are being drowned out by entrenched cultural narratives focused on growth, competition and consumerism.
This means that it is incredibly important for funders to centre values when working towards environmental and social transformation. Ruth Taylor and Elsie Roderiques from Common Cause Foundation guided an exploration of cultural values and the influence of funders in shaping them at the most recent Funders for Sustainable Living Network workshop in November 2023. Here are some of the key points they covered.
Why are values important?
Values are the principles or standards that guide and inform our thoughts, attitudes and actions. They influence many aspects of our lives, such as how and if we vote, what we buy, our choice of friends, our ecological footprint, and our personal wellbeing. They also influence how we act on social and environmental issues like climate change, global poverty and racism. If we are to overcome the world’s most pressing challenges, we need to foreground the human values that underpin our care for each other and the wider world.
Triggering values promotes action – not always the action we wanted!
Exciting research shows that when messages reinforce ´intrinsic´ values – such as benevolence and equality – people are more likely to:
- report a stronger connection to their community
- engage in greater levels of civic participation
- report high wellbeing
- show deeper support for social and environmental policies.
But sustainability campaigns often use marketing techniques that inadvertently reinforce ´extrinsic values´ connected to achievement and status: adverts encourage us to “save money” by saving energy, or to “look cool” with a seemingly sustainable product, such as an electric vehicle.
This might be effective in mobilising action in the short term, but it also creates a bigger problem: by strengthening extrinsic values such as power, wealth and social status, these messages reinforce the status quo of growth-based capitalism, rather than promoting the deep systemic change we crucially need in the face of ecological and societal crises.
Intrinsic and extrinsic values exist in a dynamic relationship to one another, as if they are on a see-saw: when we engage extrinsic values (like wealth or power or public image) we likely suppress the opposing intrinsic values (like equality, social justice) and the attitudes and behaviours associated with them.
Our current culture builds up our “extrinsic” muscles
Contemporary Western and Westernised popular culture overwhelmingly engages extrinsic values, so that over time, we are primed more towards self-interested actions and attitudes. Whenever we share messages that strengthen extrinsic values, we are reinforcing the current economic system that contributes to harmful patterns of overconsumption, individualism and self-interest.
Funders create a “Cultural Values Footprint”
Everyone´s work has a ‘cultural values footprint’: the impact created by the values strengthened through various messages our work generates. For funders, this footprint is magnified by the portfolio of work that is funded.
Funders need to ensure that the work we are doing and funding is strengthening the intrinsic values we desperately need to be elevated in society, and not inadvertently reinforcing the status quo. This not only can help us to tackle challenges we face today, but build the foundations for a radically different way of understanding our relationship with one another and the more than human world.
Muscle-building workouts for cultural values
Building the “muscle” of pro-environmental values happens through repetition and reinforcement of intrinsic values. The good news is that this group of values is reinforced as a whole when any one of the values is engaged; we call this the ‘bleedover effect’. This means that a wide range of social and environmental campaigns – such as care for humanity, appreciation of nature, responsibility or justice – are just as important as campaigning for specific climate initiatives.
The challenge is creating enough cultural impact based on intrinsic values that it can rebalance the seesaw towards more pro-social and pro-environmental values.
How can funders strengthen pro-social values?
It can be a challenge for funders to advocate for working with values because it requires us to move away from traditional forms of evaluation, with a longer view of what success looks like. However, it is clear that progressive funding of piecemeal interventions has not resulted in systemic shifts away from climate change or other interconnected crises such as structural racism and sexism.
Funders can be instrumental in strengthening intrinsic values culturally by focusing grant-making on the worldview we want to further, rather than on short-term metrics like carbon reduction. To do so, we should rethink how we define success. We are aware of the challenge, but finding supportive allies among other funders and grantees is essential to keep up momentum and support each other. Here are some suggestions that Common Cause Foundation offers for realigning funding work with prosocial values:
- Focus on quantity and strengthening of intrinsic values culturally / with public / target groups rather than perfecting targeted climate messaging.
- Discuss intrinsic values with grantees and support them in elevating intrinsic values through their work.
- Stay focused on the need for a deeper cultural shift – without this we will be tinkering. Every project has the potential to contribute to deeper cultural change through strengthening intrinsic values.
- Can we measure our own cultural values footprint? Although it is difficult to measure impact or attribute contribution from this type of work, it is essential that we start to measure the values that we are strengthening through our work, and make sure we are not inadvertently strengthening extrinsic values.
Our workshop showed that funders are motivated to work with values, and will continue to explore potential actions. The challenging first step for many foundations is to accept that this is not a quick win campaign, but part of a deep cultural change that is so needed in the world today. If you’d like to learn more about values, see the link below for Values 101 seminars offered by Common Cause Foundation.
- Values 101 online sessions hosted by Common Cause Foundation Ticket Tailor event page – Values 101
- Values in the Media project Exploring the role of the media in shaping our cultural values
- The Schwartz framework Academic paper – An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values
- Common Cause Foundation´s F4SL network Workshop Slide Deck presentation
Transparency: Kate Power has been a Non-Executive Director of CCF since 2019.
Kate Power convenes Funders for Sustainable Living (F4SL), an open network promoting ambitious action for radically equitable and sustainable ways of living. It sounds depressing but it’s actually a lot of friendship and fun!
If you are a funder curious about the connections between equality, ecology and society, feel welcome to join a future workshop: email@example.com