Vision and Strategy Simplified

Nonprofit boards are sometimes confused by words like mission, vision, strategy, and plan.  Here is a simple way to look at those words:

Mission – Think of it as the justification for your nonprofit’s existence.  It promises to solve a significant problem.  The bigger the promise, the broader and deeper your community support will be when you fulfill the promise.  Therefore, if community support in all forms (donors, volunteers, referrals, and advocates) is below the level you need for sustainability, perhaps your board should ask two questions:

Are we promising enough?

Can we prove we are fulfilling the promise often enough?

Vision – Think of it as the place you would like to take your community.  If the problem your mission promises to solve was solved, what would your community look like?  Rarely is it possible to eliminate one of our social problems.  However, it is easy to imagine what the community would look like if the problem was solved (full employment, no hunger, a cure for cancer, etc.).  If you find it hard to engage supporters, perhaps you need a more compelling vision.

Strategy – Think of it as the path your nonprofit will take to reach the place the vision describes.  Part of the strategy is your recipe for your secret sauce.  Let us imagine your nonprofit’s vision is to protect turtles wishing to have access to a lake on the other side of a proposed road.  There are many possible ways to fulfill the vision.  Some are practical, like putting up fence to keep the turtles off the road, though this keeps the turtles from reaching the lake.  Some are impractical, like putting up a stop light and only allowing the turtles to cross at specific times.  Some are expensive, like building a tunnel under the road which allows the turtles free access to the lake.  Deciding which strategy is best depends on the priorities of the nonprofit, its supporters, and community.  Since the priorities are the constraints on the strategy, establishing the priorities is a precursor to selecting a strategy.

Plan – Think of it as how you will bring the strategy to life.  It is impossible to create a perfect plan.  Every plan must be modified to accommodate unexpected internal and external changes.  If competitors are gaining on your nonprofit, adjusting the plan may increase quality or do something else to buy your nonprofit a little time but the time must be used to rethink the strategy and create a new plan.

Most nonprofits rarely review their missions, visions, and strategies.  In many cases, the strategy evolves informally.  Therefore, it is hard to know what the strategy is or how to adjust it.  In addition, without formal descriptions that are up to date, it is hard for new board members, volunteers, and staff members to integrate smoothly.  When people stumble early, it is harder for them to sustain their excitement, which often limits their engagement.

Next Step:

Review your mission, vision, and strategy every time there is major internal or external event or once a year, whichever is more frequent

Create a formal mission, vision, strategy, and plan

Evaluate the perceived relevance of your mission, vision, and strategy annually among your stakeholders and community

It is easy to imagine that your mission and vision are valid for the next several decades.  While the essence will remain, the wording you use today to describe them is unlikely to resonate with your community in the near future.  When that happens, your nonprofit will lose some of its sustainability because of the perceived loss of relevance caused by the out-of-date wording.  The wording of the strategy is less important.  The strategy is seldom made public because it is usually only of value to your staff, board, and your competitors.

Ultimately, it is your nonprofit’s external environment that will determine your nonprofit’s success.  When you notice that your nonprofit’s sustainability is declining, engage your community in a top-down discussion of the preceding four bullets (mission, vision, strategy, plan).  It is important to remember that the execution of your plan is less important than your community’s assessment of the other three.  If your community is fully committed to the first three, they will provide you with the resources and time to adjust your plan.  In addition, your community knows that every plan is flawed and every plan needs periodic revision.  All your community cares about is that your nonprofit can prove that you are moving the community closer to the vision you share.

Take It Further:

Ask your board committees and staff to periodically reverse engineer the strategy of your competitors (it will provide your board with a preview of possible threats, suggest changes to your strategies, and strengthen the strategic thinking skills of your senior staff and board members)

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