Core Values

What it means

Core values are a focused set of guiding principles that define your highest organizational aspirations. The organization is stronger when all members honor the core values and apply them in all decisions, large and small. They operate internally and externally; this includes team behavior, colleague interactions, and how the organization interacts with the public.

How it’s used

Core values should be used in critical decisions such as board selection, hiring, training, onboarding, and program selection. They should also be used in day-to-day discussions, planning, and strategic planning as an active tool for all decision-making. Core values can serve as a type of rubric to assess the compatibility of a partnership.

Core values serve as guardrails for everyone, including the board, executive leadership, team members, and volunteers, and they should extend to expected visitor behavior. All members of the organization should take responsibility to uphold and defend the core values. This work should be regarded as part of one’s role and responsibility as a member of the organization.

Core values should address an organization’s highest aspirations rather than reiterate standard nonprofit management practices. Safety and integrity, for example, should not clutter the core values, as these should be regarded as basic prerequisites for continued operation.

Core values must be well defined, easy to understand, and ready to use by everyone involved in the museum; this puts a severe limit on how many core values any museum can reasonably have.

Why it matters

In a world where museums face an increasingly uncertain future, core values serve as critical guardrails and inspiration, protecting the organization from going off the path as it moves toward the achievement of its most aspirational vision.

Core values are a powerful tool in the development, evolution, or maintenance of organizational culture, which is, in turn, a key constraint on organizational strategy. If the culture, and thus the behavior of those inside the organization, is out of alignment with the strategy, the museum’s capacity to execute that strategy will be severely limited.


See also Purpose Statement (Purpose, Mission, Vision, Values)


We recommend using only three core values and to avoid “values soup” with five, six, or more values. A total of three core values allows every member of the organization to keep them all clear in their heads and top-of-mind so that they can make use of them. A large collection of core values, especially those with absent or nebulous definitions, are nearly impossible to use in real-world decision-making. We see this as a significant and very common problem when an organization seeks to activate its core values in service of building a stronger organizational culture, or by extension, executing an organizational strategy.


Recent years have witnessed the addition of DEAI to many organizations’ list of core values. This is problematic for at least two reasons: (1) diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion are actually four additional values; and (2) they should, like safety and integrity, be part of the baseline for any museum’s operation today. Reality, however, lags way behind this ideal and so the impetus to add them is understandable. Our recommendation at this time is to include DEAI in the definition of all of a museum’s core values rather than adding them as an appendage.

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