We hear the term ‘values’ a lot in the design of change projects. What does it mean?

‘Values’ refers to people’s hopes, wants, dreams and desires. If we want people’s energy and commitment, we need to show we share their values by offering projects that improve their lives or solve their frustrations (as well as achieving our desired outcomes).

Values are communicated in the language of a project – its name, its stated purpose, and its messages. Keep in mind that the substance of the project must genuinely deliver on those values if we want results to be sustained.

Values are the source of motivation in human beings. The more heart-felt the value, the more time and energy people are likely to spend acting for that value, over a longer period.

For example, if we’re working on riparian protection project, instead of “improving our rivers” a better purpose statement might be “giving farmers the edge in their business”. If we can genuinely deliver on that purpose we’re more likely to see riparian protection practices adopted and sustained.

Here are two examples of values-based communications:

Values posters

Understanding what values are important for our audience is vital for good project design. That’s one reason why social research is important. Social research lets us hear what matters to our audience so that we can then construct projects that deliver BOTH on things they care about and on our desired outcomes.

Doing good for others

It can be tempting to frame projects around a selfish notion of ‘what’s in it for me’ by focusing on immediate financial rewards (like prizes, giveaways, or incentives) or on avoiding threats (like fines). These ‘extrinsic motivators’ tend to produce negligible, short lived, behaviour changes, if any.

Instead, it can be more effective to focus on making a positive difference for other humans.

Most people are strongly motivated to make a better world for other human beings. Provided we make it safe and simple to act, most people will readily accept a chance to leave a positive legacy.


Queanbeyan City Council’s City to Soil project aimed to get householders to use a kitchen caddy to transfer food waste in their green waste bin. It was framed as a chance for householders to do good by improving the lives of farmers, and to return to ‘our soil’ the nutrients it needs.

City to Soil

Queanbeyan City Council’s ‘City to Soil’ project was framed around making a difference to the lives of farmers and to ‘our soil’.

Project Cane Changer is a successful program to increase the number of environmentally accredited cane growers in Queensland.

It aimed to align with cane growers’ values by recognising their existing knowledge of their environment, their pride as custodians of the land, and their history of innovation.

Project Cane Changer

Project Cane Changer surveyed 48 cane growers to understand their values before devising the strategy. Source: Project Cane Changer. 

Should we try to change people’s values?

Keep in mind that it can be extraordinarily hard to change people’s values. That’s because values are the result of people’s entire experience of life. True, values can sometimes be altered by intense and confronting life experiences. However it will always easier to ‘paddle with the current’ by aligning with people’s existing hopes and desires, rather than trying to alter them. In fact trying to change them can be dangerous because audiences will often read it as ‘you think I’m bad’, leading to denial and resistance.

Therefore, instead of trying to motivate people to believe in your values, it’s better to devise projects that are clearly at the service of your audience’s own hopes and dreams.

Key points

1) Framing your project around the positive hopes and dreams of your audience will help harness their motivation and commitment.

2) Always be aware of whose values are you communicating – yours or your audience’s.

3) Spend time talking to your audience to get a sense of what they care strongly about. For example, with a group of farmers it might be productivity, pride in their land, self-respect as innovators, or just tackling a particular weed that’s taking too much of their time and money. Once you figure it out, make sure you frame the purpose and language of your project around that value.

4) It’s a common mistake to try to persuade your audience to care about the same values you care about.

5) It can be good to frame your project as a chance to make a difference for other human beings.

More on values framing for the environment: George Lakoff (2010) Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment, Environmental Communication, 4:1, 70-81

[This piece was written as part of an AAEE project for the NSW Environment Trust.]

Oh yes… there are upcoming workshops, on Changeology and Facilitation Skills: