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This is our second article in a series on nonprofit visioning—a process to define and clarify the aspirations that inspire nonprofit communities and move them forward. To dig further into visioning and the process we outline today, read our first entry on what a vision statement is and why it’s important here.
You’ve dreaded the questions we started with last week:
A concise, creative vision statement that puts your organization’s deepest aspirations in focus may be the answer you’ve been looking for. But the longer you think about it… and the more important a vision statement feels… the harder it is to know where to start.
Reaching a strong, simple vision statement like Kennedy’s “Put a man on the moon” in a nonprofit context can seem as impossible and unattainable as the moon itself—especially if you want your entire community to agree on, remember, and use it regularly! And if developing an effective vision statement were easy, you’d probably already have what you need.
So where should you start?
Building a nonprofit vision statement that engages, rallies, and inspires an entire community isn’t a one-person job, it’s a community project. You can write the perfect vision statement on paper—an artful turn of phrase that seems unique, memorable, and inspiring—but if your community isn’t bought-in and willing to use it, it’s like keeping a prescription for new reading glasses in your pocket: you’ve clarified what you need, but it won’t change how you see if you can’t put it to use.
The best way to build a vision for your community is to build a vision with your community. For a community to embrace a vision, they have to be part of creating it. By bringing different voices and perspectives into the process, you can create a vision that resonates deeply, increases enthusiasm, and energizes advocates to engage their peers.
But anyone who’s ever tackled a group project knows they can get out of hand almost as soon as they start. So what should your community’s visioning process look like in practice? And how do you figure it out?
The right approach will look different for every organization, but these questions—and the tactics outlined for each—can help any nonprofit develop a custom approach to visioning that works for them.
Visioning can occur in multiple contexts and vision statements can exist at multiple levels in your organization. Perhaps you have a new leader looking to clarify and better communicate the direction they’re taking your organization. Perhaps you’re in the midst of campaign or strategic planning and want to make sure you have the capstone ideas that will bring your plans to life. Perhaps a large cultural, social, or economic shift (a pandemic, for example)—has transformed your work and clarified your purpose and you need to express this change in real-time.
Whatever the situation may be, knowing the specific context for your vision—its scope and purpose—will help you determine who should be involved, how broad involvement should be, and how extensive a process is required. An organizational visioning effort may need a robust process with extensive, broad-based engagement, while a more specific programmatic vision may rest with a narrower slice of your community. Consider who needs to use this vision statement, who needs to buy-in most, and whether and how leadership, volunteers, staff members, and community stakeholders will need to be involved to meet your goals.
Visioning is a community process, but it needs a strong editor!
Select a person and/or small group to lead the process of writing and facilitating. Assigning someone to “own” visioning results in better momentum and clearer, stronger output. A small core group—one to three people—is ideal for conducting interviews and input sessions, leading generative workshops, crafting initial ideas, and revising based on community input.
Use committees—but don’t write by committee. While it’s important to have multiple voices and perspectives representing different constituencies and providing ideas and feedback, writing by committee is likely to lead to a stitched-together “Frankenstein” of a vision with a weaker voice, less focus, and softer impact. (Read more on building consensus without writing by committee here.)
Consider working closely with an ad hoc task force or existing Board committee. In addition to the visioning “owner,” a small group of leadership, staff, volunteers, and community members should be intimately involved each step of the way—joining conversations, reviewing drafts, and being among the first to internalize the vision for their own use.
Consider utilizing an existing Board committee (such as Governance or Development) or convening an ad hoc task force for this purpose—doing so will provide a venue for more perspectives and deeper buy-in, without disrupting a tight and effective process. Always consider the representation of your community at large in this group, ensuring all those who may use or interact with the vision statement have a voice in decision making and inviting additional participants if the full breadth of your constituents is not represented in a pre-existing Board committee or task force.
Tackling a vision statement can involve managing a lot of feedback—whether it’s gathering a wide breadth of input and perspectives to start your process or navigating specific thoughts and preferences as you narrow down to a core concept and idea.
At every stage, be strategic and inclusive in who you bring into the process—strategic in determining how best and how deeply to involve different stakeholder segments, and inclusive in making sure all stakeholders feel represented, either directly or indirectly. Broader cross-organization and cross-community involvement now means more widespread buy-in and enthusiasm later.
Draw on multiple tactics, balancing a desire for deeper input from select stakeholders with tools that reach more broadly. These may include:
Lastly, be sure to map out the process and timeline in advance if forming a Committee or ad hoc task force, including any meetings, so that you can set expectations on the time commitment when inviting potential members to participate.
In a community-review process, every point of engagement is an opportunity to build consensus and bring people along. Sometimes a bad vision concept is exactly what you need to get everyone to line up behind the great one right next to it.
Early on, keep the focus on conceptual direction rather than wordsmithing. Try to develop three to five initial vision statements that each tackle the organization’s future from a different angle—e.g., organization-centric or community-centric? measurable or qualitative? personal or structural? etc. Even if this feels artificial at first, starting with varied concepts will help build buy-in for your overarching approach before you move into more detailed writing and reviews.
Start simple before you build out. If you have to write a full paragraph (or even more) to start, you might have further clarifying to do. Try to begin with simple, one-sentence vision statements supported by a brief explanation of tone and focus if helpful. Once capstone ideas are agreed upon, build your vision concepts out further with fuller messaging. Invite feedback that is more detailed and less conceptual as you advance through the process.
Partner with your ad hoc task force or Board committee as you test, refine, and finalize your vision statement based on community feedback. Have them review early concepts and determine which (with refinement) merit broader testing. And after soliciting community feedback on one or more vision concepts, ask them to meet one to two more times to help you with the final step: review and interpret feedback, determine how to act on it, and finalize and approve the revised vision statement that emerges.
We hope this two-part blog is a good starting point for your visioning process. Developing a successful, shared vision requires both skilled facilitation and strong communications—and Campbell & Company can uniquely bring this combination to our clients. To learn more about this service, contact us here.