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Refuge is the largest specialist domestic abuse organisation in the UK. On any given day their services support thousands of survivors, helping them to overcome the physical, emotional, financial and logistical impacts of abuse and rebuild their lives — free from fear.


Refuge was founded and first opened its doors in 1971, at that time domestic abuse was largely seen as a “private matter”, to be dealt with behind closed doors. Society turned a blind eye.  So when Refuge was founded and opened its first safe house for women and children, it was the first time, someone was saying it was wrong to beat your partner. 


Since then, Refuge has led the campaign against domestic abuse and worked tirelessly to empower, advocate for and champion the needs of survivors.


The Context

As a successful charity providing critical frontline services, Refuge are always looking to find new ways to improve what they do and continually grow the impact they have.  


Therefore, in 2021/2 the organisation embarked on a wide-ranging review of its organisational strategy and impact.  As part of this, the senior leadership team were keen to consider how Values and organisational culture could play an even greater role in supporting the evolving aims and activities of the organisation.  


In early 2023, boardroom consulting was appointed to conduct a wide-ranging review of organisational values. 

The approach

The senior leadership team and Board of Trustees at Refuge were of the same view as us, that Values projects, needed to be delivered in ways that were inclusive, democratic and inspirational - with opportunities for all staff to contribute to the discussion and process.  

This was important if we were to energise and engage people in and through the process of review and refinement but also to ensure any resulting Values were genuinely reflective and of the organisation and useful & useable by all staff. 


At the same time, the project needed to be completed within a specific window of time, to ensure alignment with other major workstreams that were being progressed in parallel.  


As is so often the case, how people feel about and experience the process of development, often impacts and influences how they receive and feel about the end outputs.  


Therefore, in values projects, where it’s crucial that as many staff as possible engage with and feel positive about the outputs, a process that is inclusive and energising can go a long way to ensuring positive buy-in at the end


Our approach was therefore deliberately creative, participatory and inclusive, incorporating all staff surveys, creative discovery workshops, online comment boards and co-development sessions.  It enabled us to engage with all senior managers and Trustees, as well as a huge cross-section of staff across multiple departments, frontline services and geographies. 


We also agreed and communicated a clearly defined roadmap, with two phases of ‘engagement’ activity with clear milestones and outputs at each stage and used this to ensure everyone was clear on activity, outputs and timescales. 

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Set Values in the context of organisational strategy, not discrete from this.


Values are not an end in their own right, but a critical tool in the delivery of an organisation’s wider strategy and impact.  So discussion and exploration of Values were always rooted in the wider mission and impact of the organisation, which provided a uniting and motivating ‘golden thread’ that all staff felt huge pride in. 


By doing this, staff could see the connection between Values, their day to day behaviours and actions, and the broader impact of the organisation and provided a motivating reason to engage and contribute. 

Review and define Values in the context of not only Refuge of today, but also Refuge of tomorrow 


In reviewing that existing values and culture it became clear that there were some aspects that were of critical importance to both staff and strategy, regardless of how this was evolving, and needed to be retained.  These tended to centre around a number of specific, shared beliefs that were seen as “core to who we are”.  However, these often didn’t really represent true ‘values’ in terms of driving action, behaviour and activities.  


Therefore, our recommendation was to retain these core beliefs but re-case these as a central guiding philosophy that acts as a golden thread through the organisation and is intrinsically linked to mission and imoact. 


Avoid ‘one-word’ Values, instead defining these as ‘action-oriented’ statements


Values are only useful if they’re used.  Defining values therefore in singular, one-word terms that are often open to varying interpretation and don’t translate effectively into behavioural statements, makes no sense.  


This approach was readily endorsed by staff at Refuge, who identified many inspiring examples of great values from organisations they admired.  Thus, from the outset we were focused on defining and developing actionable, action-oriented statements that translated really well into clear and common behaviours.  This had a number of benefits – firstly they were far clearer to all staff and less open to interpretation and confusion (a charge leveied at the existing values framework). Secondly, they translated easily into a more robust behaviours framework which could then be used to underpin and support decision making, recruitment, performance management and so on – and finally, the values statements and supporting behaviours framework were about to be articulated in the language and personality of the organisation.  Thus they were more memorable and compelling. 

Create a Values framework, not just Values, to support a shift to being values-driven, not just 'having Values' 


It was clear from the many examples staff brough to the working sessions, as well as our experience that the organisations that had valued that genuinely influenced experience and behaviours were more admired and more successful.  In short, organisations that were committed to being ‘values-driven’ not just having values.


Therefore, we developed a ‘Living our Values framework’ to support this work which acted as a useful structure to guide contributions and for Refuge to identify ways to embed values across everything and anything from:  internal comms and staff awards, to business planning and working practices, recruitment through to performance management. 


The positive engagement we experienced was amazing and a credit to the staff and leadership of Refuge. Over 80 staff directly engaged in workshops and sessions, with many more contributing via surveys and online commentary.  


Contributions were inspiring, positive and well considered.  Which meant workshops built a sense of real positive momentum around the project – with us receiving a number of comments from staff afterwards about how much they enjoyed the process!


Final Values were positively received by all staff and were unanimously approved by the Trustees and Board, who are now working hard to embed these into practice and policies. 


“As part of the development of our first three-year Strategic Plan, we decided to review our current values. Boardroom designed an approach to their development that was particularly open & inclusive, ensuring there were opportunities for anyone and everyone in Refuge to contribute. The project had co-development at its heart, helping ensure that our Values are genuinely and authentically representative of Refuge today; which they balanced expertly by bringing in stimulation, ideas and provocation from elsewhere to push our thinking and ambition.  We’re delighted with the outputs and our Values are exciting, inspiring and genuinely able to direct and support positive behaviours from everyone.  We’re now working hard to embed these across the organisation.”


Lornette Pemberton, Director of People & Culture, Refuge.  

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