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Lead Your Nonprofit from Vision, Not Mission

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In Part 1 of this three-part series about developing your unique, essential “Case for Support.” I introduced the concept of the nonprofit mission, values and vision triad. Together they’re how you are known in the community. They become your brand. In Part 2 we dove deeper into what constitutes your mission (what you do) and your values (how you do it). Today we’ll dive into that which drives your what and how – your Vision, or your why.

Clarify Your Nonprofit Vision – Why You Do What You Do

More than ever before nonprofit leaders must lead from vision (brand promise), not mission (programs and process).

Why?  The world is moving really, really fast. Blame it on the digital revolution if you wish.  But why waste time laying blame? It is what it is. Instead, get into the 21st century. Now.

The present (what you’re doing) is nothing more than a springboard to the future.

Never lose sight of the change you’re endeavoring to bring about. That’s the promise folks want to invest in. Positive, transformative change.

Nonprofits have tended to forget their visions in order to justify continued existence.

Sometimes founders and other leaders become too wedded to the status quo. They can’t let their babies grow up. This is wrong. Nonprofits are founded to meet needs and resolve problems. Needs change. Problems get resolved (or they should). Nonprofits should strive to go out of business, or get into a new one (a great example is the March of Dimes, mentioned in Part 1).

So… what is your vision? And how is it different from your mission?

I believe your vision to be more like your brand than anything else.  

It’s the why of your existence. The ‘mark’ you are striving to make in the world.

Though we tend to think of “brand” as the outward expression of what’s at our heart and soul (i.e., name, tagline and visual appearance -colors, graphics and typeface), this is merely “the brand’s identity,” and a symbol of differentiation from competitors.

Beneath that symbol lies your vision’s beating heart and pulsating rhythm.

Brian Fraser, lead provocateur of Jazzthink, thinks your vision statement is like a melody:

It should be lucid, illuminating the core purpose the organization serves. It should be short – fifteen words max, preferably fewer. And it should be made up of words that are loaded with value and feeling. That’s what makes them understandable and sticky. You can remember them easily. They can refocus and align your hearts and heads quickly in the midst of distractions and disputes.”

Consider your vision your theme song.

It’s the experience and promise you offer.

It underlies everything you do. Make sure it resonates with your prospective supporters.

Do any of these statements sound familiar?

No one knows who we are.

We’re the best kept secret around.

Folks know what we used to do, but not who we are today.

We have an awareness problem.

All of these complaints stem from a failure to clarify your nonprofit vision.

What if you could come up with a song to stand in for your vision?

TIP: Gather key stakeholders and do a theme song brainstorming exercise. Ask folks to consider in advance, and bring some ideas to the meeting. Your theme song(s) may change over time as your vision evolves. The key is to get everyone in your organization to agree that the song(s) you choose are resonant. And that this brand will resonate with your core target constituencies. Then, you don’t need to select an actual song (although you certainly can). Simply consider the songs you’ve selected and pull out key themes to construct your vision statement.

Post-digital revolution visions are created by the chorus.

Today’s nonprofit theme song is more along the lines of “We are the World” than “I Did it My Way.”

In other words, your brand is no longer a top-down exercise.

We’re in a world of inbound, not outbound, marketing. All your constituents, current and potential, will have a voice in where you’re headed. You can no longer sit in a closed room, figure out your vision, and then tell folks what it is. Because folks are going to be learning about you online long before you even know they exist. And they’ll have already formed their own impressions.

Sometimes your constituents will get way ahead of you. I’ve read some studies claiming people are 60% of the way down the path towards affiliating (or not) with your organization before you’re ever aware of their existence.

Or, potentially you’ll get way ahead of them. You may go running down the road towards something that matters not one whit to your supporters. That’s why everyone in your organization absolutely has to listen to them. All the time. Big time.

Today your brand is very much defined by what others think about you. Such impressions (be they positive or negative) take time to form and assemble. You can’t ask an agency to “do a brand” or a “vision” for you. They can help with messaging, logos, taglines, colors and all that jazz. But those are just some tools at the tip of the branding/visioning iceberg.

Your vision and brand is what you stand for, believe in, behave like, and how you are perceived.

It’s the collective sum of who you are as an organization.

Always lead from what constituents perceive your value to be to them.

And be agile enough that you can adapt as this perceived value changes.

Branding is a marketing concept. And marketing is always most successful when it’s connected — at the hip — to listening.

Listening is simply the best way to pay attention. Otherwise your brand will not resonate – and you’ll have lost the game before you’ve begun.

Your brand is a psychological construct.

It’s something held in the minds of those aware of your services, programs, products, people or cause – or some combination thereof. Leading from vision requires being aware of these psychological associations and creating an aligned ‘brand experience’ that fulfills stakeholder expectations. The result of alignment in vision, mission and values is a clear brand positioning and cohesion among diverse internal and external constituencies.

TIP: The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector from Stanford Social Innovation Review suggest you consider three things:

  1. The value experience you currently offer folks.
  2. The value experience others perceive you to offer.
  3. The value experience your folks want from you.  

If they’re aligned, you’re golden. If not, you’ve got work to do.

Successful branding builds on one simple rule of human nature.

People like being around other people who care about similar things; who share values and beliefs.

Fundamentally, all of philanthropy is a value-for-value exchange.

You need to know what people want from you in exchange for the value they offer you. Then you need to deliver. Philanthropy – aka “love of humankind” – is a reciprocal endeavor. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

To lead from a vision that aligns with that of your constituents, ask these key questions:

  • What is our/their core purpose? (WHY)
  • What are our/their core values? (HOW)
  • How can we best achieve our/their core purpose? (WHAT)

Once you have clarity on what you stand for, and know it resonates with your constituents, then you can truly lead from vision and become the essential (in every sense of the word) you.

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