This week on the blog, I’m revisiting one of our most popular posts of all time, which focuses on crafting an effective vision statement for your nonprofit. I’ve always been a big proponent of putting time and focus into developing a clear vision, but lately, I’ve begun to see vision work as the most transformational part of strategic planning. It’s an organization’s best opportunity to think big about what’s possible and what they might achieve in working in partnership with other nonprofits, without any boundaries. Working on developing or clarifying your vision forces you to get out of the day-to-day, put aside all your hesitations and simply ask “what if…?” What if our organization achieved all its goals? How would the world be different as a result? The answer is often both simple and surprising, and discovering it often pushes the nonprofits we work with down completely new (more impactful) paths. If it’s been awhile since your organization took a good hard look at its vision or tapped its stakeholders for input into that vision, this post is for you. I’ve revamped it with our latest thinking on how to make your vision the powerful tool it’s meant to be, and included 20+ examples of nonprofit vision statements that may inspire yours. Let’s dive in.
A nonprofit vision statement describes what the future would look like if your organization achieved all its goals.
It’s audacious. It’s inspiring. It’s future-casting. It feels nearly out of reach; if you truly realized your vision to the fullest extent, your organization may no longer need to exist.
And that’s exactly why getting your vision statement right is so important. It focuses everyone on your nonprofit’s team and board on why your organization exists, and why the work you do matters. It also communicates those same ideas and ideals to your external stakeholders, such as your program participants, community members, donors and volunteers. It is the destination that gives meaning to the journey of operating an impactful nonprofit, allowing everyone to (in the words of Stephen Covey) “begin with the end in mind.”
A nonprofit vision statement operates in tandem with a nonprofit mission statement, which should describe the work you’re doing every day to drive toward your vision. The easiest way to think about the difference between the two is that a vision statement should describe why, while a mission statement should describe what and how.
If your nonprofit is creating its first vision statement, needs to rework its vision statement to better reflect its current strategic direction, or simply needs to better articulate a vision that already exists, here’s how to get started developing a nonprofit vision statement that will guide your organization’s future, along with 20+ vision statement examples to inspire your nonprofit.
Start with strategic planning
A vision statement is not the same thing as a vision, though the two are closely related. A vision is a shared belief about the future your nonprofit can create if it achieves all its goals. A vision statement is a concise, clear, well-articulated set of words that describe your organization’s vision to internal and external stakeholders. Don’t make the mistake of trying to shape your vision statement before your organization is clear about its vision on a conceptual level. Vision development should happen early on in the strategic planning process, before you get to working on your mission and setting pillars (aka priorities), objectives and key results.
If your organization takes a thoughtful approach to developing its vision that deeply involves a range of stakeholders, your vision statement should be able to stand the test of time, and guide your work for 10, 25, or even 100+ years. However, it is worthwhile to re-evaluate your vision each time you go through strategic planning (typically every 3-5 years) to ensure it still holds up. If your organization is making massive shifts to its strategic direction or working with new communities, revisiting and revising your vision statement may be in order. If not, it’s still helpful to re-affirm it and ensure everyone is grounded in why your organization exists before you get deeper into strategic planning.
Get the right people involved
Ideally, vision statement development should be a collaborative process that involves not just leadership and communications staff, but rather a wide array of other internal and external stakeholders, with Shared Power Strategy™ practices in mind. To truly understand the perspectives of all your diverse stakeholders and develop a vision statement that reflects them, you must involve a representative group of those people in the process. Consider conducting interviews, surveys and/or focus groups with your program participants and their families, with those who live in the communities you serve, with your volunteers, donors, and anyone else who has a stake in the future your organization is working to create.
Then, use the data you gather to inform a vision workshop that should ideally be attended by a group of key staff, and a committee of board members who are intimately involved in strategic planning. Most nonprofits will ultimately have to seek board approval on their vision statements, and involving the board in the vision development process is the best way to ensure the board and staff are aligning around why the organization exists. Then, “market test” the vision statement that your staff and board members develop on your program participants and other stakeholders, and refine it based on their input.
Get on the same page about what makes a nonprofit vision statement effective
As you work collaboratively with your stakeholders to develop a nonprofit vision statement, make sure everyone is on the same page about what a successful outcome will look like. An effective nonprofit vision statement is:
- Audacious: Your vision represents a dream that’s beyond what you think is possible. It represents the mountaintop your organization is striving to reach. It takes you out beyond your present reality.
- Aligned with core competencies: Your vision builds on your nonprofit’s existing assets: its history, supporter base, strengths, unique capabilities, resources and programs. It should also encompass what you’ll continue to establish as you work toward your mission.
- Futurecasting: Your vision provides a picture of what your organization will look like in the future, which forces you to make some educated predictions and assumptions.
- Inspiring: Your vision engages with language that inspires. It creates a vivid image in your stakeholders’ minds that provokes emotion and excitement. It creates enthusiasm and poses a challenge.
- Motivating: Your vision clarifies the direction in which your organization needs to move and keeps everyone pushing forward to reach it.
- Purpose-driven: Your vision gives employees and other stakeholders a larger sense of purpose, so they feel as though they’re building a cathedral instead of laying stones.
Study nonprofit vision statement examples
To kick off vision development, we like to ask groups to study a wide range of nonprofit vision examples and discuss what they like or dislike about each.
Here are 20+ nonprofit vision examples to help you get started:
- Feeding America’s Vision: Our vision is an America where no one is hungry.
- Ronald McDonald House Charities’ Vision: A world where all children have access to medical care and their families are supported and actively involved in their children’s care.
- Boys & Girls Club of America’s Vision: Our vision is to provide a world-class Club Experience that assures success is within reach of every young person who enters our doors with all members on track to graduate from high school with a plan for the future, demonstrating good character and citizenship, and living a healthy lifestyle.
- The King Center’s Vision: We envision the Beloved Community where injustice ceases and love prevails.
- Teach for America’s Vision: One day all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.
- World Wildlife Fund’s Vision: A future in which people live in harmony with nature.
- Sierra Club’s Vision: Clean energy, air and water for all.
- ASPCA’s Vision: The United States is a humane community in which all animals are treated with respect and kindness.
- Habitat for Humanity’s Vision: A world where everyone has a decent place to live.
- Catholic Charities USA’s Vision: Change the course of poverty in our nation.
- St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Vision: To accelerate progress against catastrophic disease at a global level.
- Global Fund for Women’s Vision: We envision a world where movements for gender justice have transformed power and privilege for a few into equity and equality for all.
- United Way’s Vision: United Way envisions a community where all individuals and families achieve their human potential through education, financial stability and healthy lives.
- The Y’s Vision: We envision a future in which all people – no matter who they are or where they come from – get the support they need, when they need it, to reach their full potential.
- Comer Education Campus’ Vision: Our vision is a world where every young person in every community has the resources and opportunities to reach their unlimited potential.
- Family Counseling Center’s Vision: We envision a Southern Illinois where all individuals are contributing to a community that is safe and vibrant for everyone.
- Ignite’s Vision: Ignite envisions a world where all young people have the support they need to be defined by their potential, not their circumstances.
- American Cancer Society’s Vision: A world free of cancer and related burden.
- Make-a-Wish’s Vision: To be able to make every child’s dream come true.
Once your stakeholders understand what an effective vision statement feels like, begin brainstorming and workshopping toward one.
Choose visioning exercises that work best for your group
It’s unlikely you’ll finalize your vision statement in just one day (in fact, you shouldn’t). Instead, we recommend holding a series of workshops to get wheels turning, playing with various different options, and eventually, transitioning to wordsmithing.
Here’s one exercise that is great for getting wheels turning: ask participants to imagine a news article about your organization 20 years from now. What would the headline say? What story would the article tell? What publication would the article be in? Drafting an example article can start to help participants think outside the box about what your organization could achieve over a longer time horizon.
You can also try working through a series of prompts with your team to inspire your vision statement. Learning Strategies shares various brainstorming prompts like the following:
It’s unlikely you’ll finalize your vision statement in just one day (in fact, you shouldn’t). Click To Tweet
Imagine that you look up from your desk and you find yourself in an auditorium in which someone is speaking and announcing an award. You realize that the person speaking is _____________ and the award is the _______________ which goes to the organization which has __________________. The presenter says, “At no time in the history of the award until now have the judges been in unanimous agreement of the organization most deserving of this award. And this year the award goes to (this organization).” There is a standing ovation, as people get out of their chairs to applaud. When the applause dies down, the presenter goes on to list all the accomplishments that made this organization deserving. Listen to what the presenter is saying (brief silence) Fill it in… what was it that the organization accomplished?
Exercises like these can get your group’s wheels turning, and take the pressure off of coming up with a vision statement out of thin air. But this is just the start. When we lead vision statement development sessions, we choose from over two dozen tried and true exercises that help groups work toward effective vision statements, and customize each session to the specific needs and dynamics of each group.A vision statement expresses the future you want to create. Click To Tweet
Consider your mission statement
Vision statements and mission statements work as a symbiotic pair, and you can’t have an effective vision statement with an ineffective mission statement, or vice versa. If your vision statement isn’t working and you can’t figure out why, there’s a good chance that the problem actually lies in your mission statement. An effective mission statement:
- Motivates and inspires stakeholder commitment: Your mission statement shouldn’t be based on raising more funds, but on articulating the significant work employees, board members and volunteers do each day and how your mission contributes to people’s lives.
- Is realistic and clear: Mission statements shouldn’t be too narrow or broad. A mission needs to contain a purpose that’s realistic to avoid mission creep, or expansion outside of your intended boundaries.
- Is specific, short, sharply focused and memorable: A mission statement should be simple, yet memorable enough that you can explain to someone at a cocktail party what your organization does and why, and trust that they’ll remember you.
- Says what your organization wants to be remembered for: In the end, your mission statement should leave a lasting impression. How do you want the world to think of you? Your statement can provide simple insight into how you do what you do.
If your organization’s mission statement doesn’t meet these criteria, or if things that should be showing up in your mission statement are ending up in your vision statement (a common problem), it may be a sign that you need to work on your mission statement in order to get your vision statement right.
A vision and mission are just two of many essential elements in the Nonprofit Impact System™. To make them as effective as possible, you should continue building out the other elements of the system, beginning with people work to engage your organization’s stakeholders.