How To Write a Nonprofit Vision Statement To Shape Your Organization’s Future

If your nonprofit met all its goals, what would the world look like?

Answering that question, and then driving toward the answer, is one of the most important quests nonprofit teams must undertake.

A vision is more than a statement. It’s a belief, an ethos, and a strategic tool. But putting clear and compelling language around that belief is also critical. That’s where the statement part comes in. 

An effective nonprofit vision statement ensures you and your staff, board members, donors, program participants, volunteers and other supporters are working toward the same shared ideas about what is possible if your nonprofit achieves all its goals, or as I often like to say, driving with the same destination in mind. If you nail your vision statement, your stakeholders will be clear about your organization’s reason for being and inspired to advance its aims. An effective vision is part of the foundation to your nonprofit’s Focus. Focus work is also the starting point for most organizations that implement our Nonprofit Impact System™. 

If your nonprofit is creating its first vision statement, needs to rework its vision statement to better reflect 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 to guide your future.

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 as part of the strategic planning process, just like goal setting. Vision statement development can happen alongside other messaging work, like writing a positioning statement and key messages.

Get the right people involved

Since a nonprofit vision statement is a foundational strategic asset that defines how your organization makes decisions and spends its time, it seems obvious that leadership should be involved in its development. But that doesn’t always happen. Often, nonprofit leaders task marketing and communications staff with finding the right language to express the organization’s vision alone. That needs to change.

Ideally, vision statement development should be a collaborative process that involves not just leadership and communications staff, but rather a wide array other internal and external stakeholders. 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 or focus groups with your program participants and their families, with those who live in the communities you serve, with your volunteers, donors, board members, and anyone else who has a stake in the future your organization is working to create. Stakeholder involvement isn’t always easy, but it’s something we can help with. Ultimately, as with most messaging projects we lead, we suggest that our clients develop a taskforce of diverse internal and external stakeholders who they can engage throughout the process of developing a vision statement.

Get on the same page about what an effective nonprofit vision statement looks like

As you work to collaboratively develop a nonprofit vision statement with your stakeholders make sure everyone is on the same page about what a successful outcome will look like. An effective 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 organization’s core competencies, including what you’ve already established: your organization’s history, supporter base, strengths, unique capabilities, resources and assets. 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.
    Inspiring: Your vision engages 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.
Powerful vision statements are audacious, capitalize on core competencies, futurecasting, inspiring, motivating and purpose-driven. Click To Tweet

Once your stakeholders understand what a 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, play with various different options, and eventually, transition to wordsmithing.

One effective “starter exercise” involves asking your group to consider other nonprofits’ vision statements and articulate what they like and dislike about them. Some notable vision statements you can use for this exercise include:

  • Comer Education Campus: 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: We envision a Southern Illinois where all individuals are contributing to a community that is safe and vibrant for everyone. 
  • Ignite: Ignite envisions a world where all young people have the support they need to be defined by their potential, not their circumstances.

Many groups also find it helpful to ask participants to imagine an ideal news headline about the organization 20 years from now. What do you want to be newsworthy about your organization? What goal would you like to achieve?

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:

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?

It’s unlikely you’ll finalize your vision statement in just one day (in fact, you shouldn’t). Click To Tweet

Exercises like these can get your group’s wheels turning, and takes 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 work groups toward effective vision statement development, and customize each session to the specific needs and dynamics of each group. If you’re interested in learning more about the process, I’d be happy to chat with you about it.

A vision statement expresses the future you want to create. Click To Tweet

Consider your mission statement

While a vision statement expresses the future you want to create, a mission statement expresses what you will do every day to drive toward your vision. 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 the significant work of employees, board members and volunteers 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 why you do what you do.

If your organization’s mission statement doesn’t meet these criteria, it may be a sign that you need to work on your mission statement in order to get your vision statement right.

What’s Next?

Learn more about how mission and vision work fits into the big picture of strategic planning here.