The Vision Thing: Do You Know Where Your Organization is Heading?

Why invest any energy in drafting a vision statement for the nonprofit organization you are starting? Most consultants and nonprofit leaders seem to want them, but for many it seems like another “touchy feely” document that just isn’t necessary. Isn’t your idea about the nonprofit strong enough to stand on its own?

Well, if you have a group of people working together to start a nonprofit organization people will hold different assumptions about all sorts of things. It’s natural to want to ignore these differences, but these small conflicts can actually be a great strength in a young organization, and working out a common vision can really help out.

One mark of a good visioning exercise is that it elicits a new and improved way of understanding your organization. Getting input from people with even slightly different perspectives can deepen your organization and help you communicate to a wider audience. Conversely, organizations without a coherent vision can find themselves working at cross purposes, wasting time and resources.

So, what exactly is an organizational vision anyway?

I’ve dealt with two types of visioning exercises, external and internal. The first produces a statement that focuses your organization’s activities. It communicates a picture of what impact your organization wants to have on the world, and it can help you decide whether or not to engage in a specific activity. For example, The Nature Conservancy’s statement is “To leave a sustainable world for future generations.” Anytime they think about establishing a new program they can think “will this move us closer to that ideal or away from it?” These types of vision statements are best if they are brief, descriptive, and inspiring. They’re often very broad in scope.

The other sort of vision statement is internal — that is, it’s about your organization more than the community. This sort of exercise can help identify obstacles you need to overcome and strengths you can put to use. It can help prioritize how to do the work more effectively. These tend to be longer and more detailed. At Free Geek (a Portland-based nonprofit I helped found in 2000) we drafted one that spelled out what the organization would look like in two years through several different lenses — looking at our financial base and our relationships with institutions, as well as considering a few different program areas, how we hoped to adapt to technological trends, and so forth. It was a few pages long.

Both of these types of visions can be helpful, but they’re different tools. The external exercise describes how the world will be better. The internal exercise asks what it is you need to be doing. I’m beginning to think that a good overall exercise takes into account both the external and internal perspectives and produces something short and inspiring for public consumption, but also deepens your internal communities understanding of what work needs to be done.

But where do you start when working out your organization’s vision?

There are a lot of exercises and tools that can help you flesh out your vision, and many can be picked up pretty easily. Here’s one of my favorites*. You can do it alone, but it’s better to do as a group.  

Imagine that three years from now your organization has become so successful that a reporter has written a major article about a recent success. Now, get a large piece of paper and a sharpie. You’re going to create a mockup of the newspaper that features the article. (Yeah, I know newspapers are dying off, but I’ve found that this exercise works in spite of that fact.) Here are the elements of the article you should include.

  1. The date. This will give you context later on.
  2. A headline. That is, what words grab the reader’s attention?
  3. An image. Draw a simple picture of a photo or other image that accompanies the article. (Stick figures are fine here. No need to get fancy.)
  4. A caption. Write down a sentence or phrase to accompany that image.
  5. An outline. There’s no need to write the whole article out, and in most cases there isn’t enough time anyway. So list 3-5 items that are covered in the article.
  6. A quote. In a breakout sidebar, write down something that someone said to illustrate a point that would be in the article.
  7. A citation. Write down the name of the person who made that quote (or the person’s role).

If you have a group, each person can do this on their own (or in smaller groups). After you’ve done this part of the exercise, post all the newspaper articles on the wall. Have everyone roam past them, reading each headline, looking at each picture, etc. Then ask each person or group to present their article. This is the basis for a discussion about what you want your organization to look like three years from now. (When possible leave the articles on the wall where people can see them for several days.) In your discussion pay attention to these points:

  • Try to identify common themes.
  • Also try to discover any contradictions. Do people have completely opposite ideas about where the organization should go?
  • Do some of the ideas from one story build on others?
  • Can you construct a common narrative about where the organization wants to be in a few years time?

I don’t usually do this exercise entirely on its own. If the organization is likely to produce unrealistic scenarios I ask first for a discussion of upcoming challenges.

When the exercise is over, it’s time for the next step — a discussion of what obstacles might exist that could hamper you in making this a reality. What can you do to address those issues? What strengths does your organization have that can help you move in this direction? How can you best use those strengths?

This type of activity can go a long way toward getting your team onto the same page when starting your nonprofit organization. It also will help you see things from a variety of perspectives. This can be a good starting point for sussing out the values your group holds, and can lay the foundation for a solid mission statement which is also essential to a new nonprofit organization.


* I didn’t invent this tool. I learned about it from other consultants, and later found a similar exercise in Gamestorming by Gray, Brown, and Macanufo, who modeled their version on The Grove Consultants International.

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