Your Ideas Create the Future

The executive is the practical leader of a nonprofit, the board chair should be the visionary leader. The visionary leader is responsible for painting the picture of the future the nonprofit will create for itself, clients, and community. The vision will unite the futures of the nonprofit, clients, and community.

The vision should be big and inspiring. The vision is most inspiring when it is just slightly out of reach. The vision 50 years ago of wiping out polio was slightly unrealistic. Those who had that vision are unlikely to live long enough to celebrate it when it occurs. However, it inspired enough people (supporters, workers, etc.) so that today we know it will happen. Because it was optimistic enough to be inspiring, it will be an important and valuable success.

Board chairs must be able to work with their board members and staff to conceive of the vision. It is the board chair’s responsibility to articulate the vision and inspire the staff, board, donors, and the community to pursue the vision. Everyone must feel ownership for the vision. When everyone owns the vision, it is easy to find the next leader when the time comes. When everyone owns the vision, it has the level of sustainability necessary to ensure it will be pursued until success is achieved.

The vision tells the world why the nonprofit is valuable. The mission statement tells the world what problem the nonprofit is going to solve. The vision tells the world how it will benefit from the nonprofit’s solution. For example, most daycares have essentially the same mission (educate young children) said in many different ways. It is the daycare’s vision of the child at graduation, age 5, age 10, or age 20 that determines the value of the education. A vision that can creditably break the cycle of poverty in the next generation will gather more support than a daycare’s vision to have children reading ready by graduation. Both visions are appealing but more community members will enthusiastically support the daycare with the more inspiring (valuable) vision.

It is the executive’s job to formulate the ideas that will determine how the nonprofit actualizes the vision. The executive’s ideas must also be inspirational. They should be practical but challenging. When they are practical and challenging, the staff will be inspired to reach a little higher. It is hard to be inspired when you are incorporating someone else’s ideas into your operations, so the vision should also be original.

The executive’s ideas are the foundation for the successful implementation of the board’s vision, the success of the clients, attraction of new clients, and the engagement of the supporters. Within reason, the executive must have the freedom to cast and pursue the executive’s vision. The board must trust the executive to know the capabilities of the staff, the needs of the clients, and the priorities of the donors. Melding those interest together effectively provides the executive with the support necessary to succeed.

Trusting the executive’s vision is sometimes difficult for a board. With years of experience, it is easy for the executive to have insights the board lacks. The incomplete understanding of the board can create an overly cautious environment. When the board constrains the how there is the potential that it will mitigate some of the value and benefits the executive’s vision will provide. Letting the executive operate freely has much lower than most boards realize and it is unlikely any flaws in the executive’s plan will cause serious damage to the nonprofit even though the flaw may temporarily impact the plan. It is often easier for the board to trust the executive if it remembers that its job is to maximize the effectiveness of the nonprofit rather than maximize the nonprofit’s efficiency. The executive and staff are the ones with the experience and expertise necessary to create the right blend of efficiency and effectiveness.

Next Step:

Ensure your board chair is a visionary capable of melding good ideas from diverse sources

Ensure your nonprofit has a vision for itself, your clients, and your community

Ensure your executive is a visionary capable of translating the board’s vision into a plan that your staff, donors, other supporters, and your community will embrace

Monitor the change in support, engaged stakeholders, client success, clients served, the number of new ideas, and sustainability

The value of each vision (why and how) can be measured by the support they generate, the number of stakeholders who are engaged and enthusiastic, the growth in clients served, the increase in the number of clients served, and by new ideas, experiments, and innovations that emerge. Since the value of the vision inspires support, the vision plays an important role in the sustainability of your nonprofit.

Take It Further:

Invite a cross section of supporters and community members to comment on your vision before you formalize it

Train your board chair candidates to be visionaries so that everyone understands how their leadership will change your community


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