Most people who decide to start nonprofits choose to do so in order to make a difference within their communities and the world in general. Nonprofits are usually birthed from a strong awareness about existing needs or problems and a sense of responsibility to contribute to solving them. There is certainly a job to do, and it’s almost always a big one with many challenges along the way. It can be like an imposing mountain you have decided to tunnel through. So, grab your picks, axes, and shovels to start hacking away as furiously as possible!
But, there is an inherent danger in trying to launch your nonprofit too quickly. In many cases that I’ve seen, nonprofit founders and leaders dive right into the most immediate challenges without taking time to adequately survey the situation and create a clear vision that helps to determine what success really looks like. In other words, they start digging into the mountain without determining where on the other side of the mountain they want to end up. They take each situation as it comes, flying by the seat of their pants, working as fast and hard as they can until they burn out.
You know when you are in one of those nonprofit organizations when there is no forward thinking nor future planning. Everything is about the emergency of the moment and initiatives change almost weekly, if not daily. The executive directors of these nonprofits pride themselves in being “visionaries” who “play it by ear” and manage their organization by “using their gut”. The board of these organizations are helpless to do anything but attend meetings where they are informed about what the leadership has done since the last meeting and every idea is shot down by the team “in the trenches.”
I promise you that I’m leading somewhere with this rant. Let's dive right in.
The Purpose of Communicating Vision
People are inspired by forward-thinking, especially when it promises to have a significant impact on society. As leaders, we often think of vision statements and presentations about our vision as words and phrases we need to say in order to “get people excited.” But, if that’s the only reason you are communicating vision, it doesn’t make it inspiring at all. It makes it disingenuous. A nonprofit organization doesn’t need vision to forice people to “get with the program”. It needs it to keep its leaders focused on the main thing so that they can properly manage the efforts of their organizations with clarity, conviction, and confidence.
When you develop your vision, you breathe life into something that does not yet exist. You literally create the possibility of something happening that hasn’t happened before. You know exactly where on the other side of the mountain you want to end up, why you want to get there, how you plan to get there, who needs to help you, and how your target community will be impacted when you break through onto the other side. Vision is a discovered view of something that that will exist in the future if everything comes together the right way. Once you have it, your organization is empowered to measure and act upon only the most meaningful actions and metrics.
How to See the Vision
Vision must first be envisioned in order to be seen. It must be conceived before it can be birthed. You and your team must take the time to dream together and talk “foolishness” as if no rules and obstacles existed. You must see the end from the beginning, perfectly and completely accomplished regardless of what obstacles you meet along the way. You must see yourself basking in the fulfillment of having achieved it and thinking back at everything you had to do along the way to realize it.
It takes a dreamer to see this dream. It also takes a conscious effort to avoid negativity and talk that will compromise the vision by conforming it to what is “achievable”. Objectives that are achievable are called goals, not visions. Visions are inconsiderate of the constraints goals live under. Where goals demand structure and rules, visions toss those out the window and choose to be free running around in the daisy fields of your mind.
How to Write Vision
First, start by taking out a sheet of paper and write down what you see. I call this the Vision Narrative. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you and how much you write down in this phase. Just fully describe what your mind’s eye sees and focus on the benefits and impact the ending will have. I recommend having 1-2 paragraphs when you are done. Don’t leave anything out because we are going to trim what you have in the next step.
Once you have your vision narrative written down, it’s time to extract the most critical elements. Read your vision narrative aloud several times. What’s the heart of your narrative? How would you summarize it into one sentence? Underline important words in your narrative that you feel need to be included in your summary sentence. This sentence, called the vision statement, will be extremely important to the forward movement of your organization. So, take your time and tighten it up.
To help you, here are some visions statements from some of the largest, most successful nonprofits on the planet, complete with a word count:
- Oxfam: A just world without poverty (5)
- Feeding America: A hunger-free America (4)
- Human Rights Campaign: Equality for everyone (3)
- National Multiple Sclerosis Society: A World Free of MS (5)
- Alzheimer’s Association: Our vision is a world without Alzheimer’s (7)
- Habitat for Humanity: A world where everyone has a decent place to live. (10)
- Oceana seeks to make our oceans as rich, healthy and abundant as they once were. (14)
- Make-A-Wish: Our vision is that people everywhere will share the power of a wish (13)
- San Diego Zoo: To become a world leader at connecting people to wildlife and conservation. (12)
- The Nature Conservancy: Our vision is to leave a sustainable world for future generations. (11)
- Ducks Unlimited is wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. (13)
- In Touch Ministries: proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people in every country of the world. (14)
- NPR, with its network of independent member stations, is America’s pre-eminent news institution (12)
- World Vision: For every child, life in all its fullness; Our prayer for every heart, the will to make it so (19)
- Teach for America: One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. (16)
- ASPCA: That the United States is a humane community in which all animals are treated with respect and kindness. (18)
- Cleveland Clinic: Striving to be the world’s leader in patient experience, clinical outcomes, research and education. (14)
- Goodwill: Every person has the opportunity to achieve his/her fullest potential and participate in and contribute to all aspects of life. (21)
- Smithsonian: Shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world (17)
- WWF: We seek to save a planet, a world of life. Reconciling the needs of human beings and the needs of others that share the Earth… (25)
- Save the Children: Our vision is a world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development, and participation. (18)
- Kiva: We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others. (26)
- Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: Cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families. (18)
- Boy Scouts of America: To prepare every eligible youth in America to become a responsible, participating citizen and leader who is guided by the Scout Oath and Law. (24)
- Charity Water: believes that we can end the water crisis in our lifetime by ensuring that every person on the planet has access to life’s most basic need — clean drinking water. (28)
- Clinton Foundation: To implement sustainable programs that improve access worldwide to investment, opportunity, and lifesaving services now and for future generations. (19)
- VFW: Ensure that veterans are respected for their service, always receive their earned entitlements, and are recognized for the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made on behalf of this great country. (32)
- Special Olympics: To transform communities by inspiring people throughout the world to open their minds, accept and include people with intellectual disabilities and thereby anyone who is perceived as different. (28)
- Creative Commons: Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity. (33)
- Amnesty International: Amnesty International’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments. (31)
How to Communicate Vision
Your vision will come into being through dreaming out loud. You may even have team members who help you construct the vision. But, once you leave your meetings, retreats, and brainstorming session, the rest of us will have no idea what transpired in those meetings, leading to the vision you created nor the reality of the problems it seeks to resolve. So, be sure to really tell the story and to communicate the problems you are solving, the process you are advocating, and the goals your mission seeks to accomplish. Talk about your overall mission and then dream ahead 10 years. How would you like to see the world change?
Vision is the thing we see in our minds and hearts that doesn’t yet exist. It’s a wonderful dream… a beautiful outcome… a glorious scenario. Create a vision worth communicating – one that truly paints a picture of a better world. That’s what donors, volunteers, sponsors, and partners want to be a part of. Find the most unreasonable and unlikely goal, then dial it back half a notch. That’s your new vision.
Bonus Action Point: You guessed it. Take a few moments to follow this tutorial and write your vision down. Spend no more than 15 minutes to write your initial thoughts and feelings first. Then, let it sit for a day. Come back to it tomorrow to expand it, creating the vision statement you will share with others.
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