At lunch recently, I had a conversation with a friend which evolved into a discussion about vision for nonprofit organizations. "What is vision?", she asked skeptically, discounting it as a buzzword for the 1990s like mission was in the 1980s. I disagree.
Vision is the fundamental differentiation between effective and nominal leadership. Visionary leadership inspires people to act, to sacrifice and to achieve taking an organization to monumental achievements.
Consider the presidential visions which have driven this country toward incredibly ambitious goals. Eisenhower convinced Congress to raise funds for an interstate highway system as a boon to commerce. Kennedy set our sights to walk on the moon to make the sciences a priority in our educational system. Johnson championed a crusade to eliminate poverty and create equal opportunity among all citizens to achieve the American dream.
Let there be no misunderstanding, vision is more than a buzzword. Its importance has been communicated to us throughout the ages. The writer of Proverbs 29:18 warns us, Where there is no vision, the people perish. Admittedly, our charitable organizations may not perish without vision to guide their mundane strivings. They are destined, however, to languish or flounder and inevitably cease to be effective.
So, what is vision? Websters defines it as sight, foresight or anticipation. Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership offers a more expansive explanation: the overarching purpose, the big dream, the visionary concept...something presently out of reach...so stated that it excites the imagination and challenges people to work for something they do not yet know how to do. Joseph Quigley in Vision provides a more down-to-earth definition: "the most fundamental statement of a corporations values, aspirations, and goals. It is an appeal to its members hearts and minds. It must indicate a clear understanding of where the corporation is today and offer a road map for the future."
Too, vision is palpable. The image of what we can be in the future becomes real in the minds eye as we describe it in elaborate detail. Its realization is just ever so slightly beyond our grasp. It is a test of leadership to articulate it in just that way with tantalizing description and passion evoking a strong desire to bring it to fruition. People who love our organizations will sacrifice their time and means to bring about a compelling vision.
Again, vision is more than a buzzword. Indeed, a leaders compelling vision has been the basis for the very creation of most of our charitable organizations. Often, as they mature, as leadership evolves, or as the environment changes, organizations become preoccupied with business as usual. Their vision is not renewed to adapt to new realities. Without a compelling vision they will not reach their potential to be as effective as possible in serving their constituencies.
Conventionally, the CEO articulates the vision. He or she is the champion for the organization communicating its values and aspirations. To be effective, the CEO must involve others, particularly boards of directors and senior management in the process of fully defining and establishing goals to achieve it. Those who govern, administer and support the organization must develop genuine ownership of the vision for it to inspire commitment and action. Unless it is shared, the vision will neither have a life of its own beyond the CEOs ego nor will it survive the loss of the CEO.
In some cases where the CEO is not a forceful personality and the board exercises significant power, the vision can be dynamically created as a group process. Typically, the driving impetus will be the board chairperson. However, for it to take root in the organizations ranks and be acted upon, the CEO must become the champion.
It is wishful thinking to believe that an organization can develop and vigorously pursue a vision without the personal commitment of the CEO. Vision is the irreducible essence of effective leadership. It cannot be generated, adopted by the organization and sustained by staff alone.
Sometimes, as development professionals we try our mightiest to forge a vision for the organization, but we are doomed to fail. This issue is one of the most frequent concerns I hear from development professionals. No matter the strength of our commitment to our organizations mission, we do not lead the organization. We cannot take it where the CEO does not want to lead.
Without the CEOs commitment to a vision, staff and board interest will wane. Service will become perfunctory. It may seem contradictory, but the organizations performance may remain at a high level for a time because of individual staffs pride and commitment. However, performance at this level will not persist.
What can you do in a situation like this?
1. If you are a member of senior management, you can initiate a discussion of the organizations vision as part of the strategic planning process. Persist until the discussion addresses the right questions penetrating the organizations core purpose. You can position yourself effectively as representing the external constituency and play devils advocate in that role.
2. If strategic planning is not an ongoing management activity of your organization, propose a planning retreat. An outside expert should be contracted to facilitate. The objective will be to establish a long-range plan which will have the mission and vision as its foundation. Follow-up sessions will be necessary to arrive at consensus on strategic and operational plans.
3. If strategic planning is entirely a staff function in your organization and it is falling short of creating a vision for the future, you might recommend a board retreat to address these issues. The CEO may be persuaded to take this action if it is limited to "development." It also should be facilitated by an outside expert. A pre-retreat, confidential survey of the board can elicit concerns about these fundamental issues and guide discussion during the retreat.
4. If these options are not available to you, you may undertake writing a case for support for the organization. This process can provide the forum to address these issues in meetings with staff, the board and the organizations constituency as you define the organizations needs for funds. It will be essential to bring basic questions and draft documents to management and/or the board for discussion and approval.
And if these solutions fail or are not viable options, then what? Ask yourself if your own efforts truly are making a difference in the lives of the people your organization serves. As Peter Drucker states in the beginning of Managing the Non-Profit Organization, "The non-profit organization exists to bring about a change in individuals and society." That is what our work is all about. If your answer is no, find an organization where vision is more than a buzzword. You will not regret it.
Michael R. Maude,