I’m the Marketing Director for a nonprofit organization. I work closely with our President and Board regularly. In our last meeting, I was asked to work on our organization’s vision. We often take cues from the for-profit world, and having a background in that sector myself, I thought I’d explore your perspective. What advice can you give leadership on visionary thinking when deciding on the direction for their company (or organization)?
Visionary Newbie in New Brunswick, NJ
What a great and interesting question. It seems every business leadership article, book, and TED Talk is about the importance of creating your “vision.” Still, for many people, the concept of a vision is relatively nebulous. Have you figured out your future targets, set some goals for your organization, and started to sketch out what you’d like to look like in the near (and distant future)?
These are big questions, I realize, but they’re essential concepts to explore if you really want to set yourself up for success. While I don’t have as much experience in the nonprofit world, I do know that, like a business, you have to run lean and keep an eye to your bottom line. It’s important to consider all your revenue (or funding) sources as well as your client base.
So the big question becomes: Where exactly do you want to be in the next 3-5 years?
The even tougher question is: HOW do you define where you want to be in the next 3-5 years?
Finding the Right Approach to Your Big Future Questions
You mention looking to the business world for inspiration and ideas on visionary thinking. I think that’s a great idea because there are undoubtedly many resources out there. Business books abound, and almost any you pick up will encourage you to engage in long-term strategic planning and goal setting.
Regardless of your business book of choice, the vast majority of business book authors will offer up some serious questions. Many of which will pertain to finding your “why.” For many organizations, answering this question immediately helps you shape your direction.
Susan Scott, the author of Fierce Conversations, suggests answering questions such as:
- Why are we here?
- What is our ideal relationship with one another?
- What is our ideal relationship with our customers?
- What contribution do we make to the global community?
…and other tough, big-picture questions, some of which may actually be easier in the not-for-profit world.
Author Bernie Liebowitz asks similar broad-reaching questions:
- How do our customers see our business, our products, our services? -and-
- How do we see ourselves and our business environment?
- How do we see the future?
In his book, Leadership: Thinking, Being Doing, Lee Thayer proposes the idea that “leaders create reality out of their vision.” This is a compelling statement. Without a vision, what will your reality become? Without a clear view of your future, will your organization cease to have one? Regardless, wouldn’t you prefer to have a hand in shaping the outcome into precisely what you want?
Creating a Vision of Your Ideal Future
Visionary thinking involves picturing the future in detail. Don’t be humble. Think big. This is a guideline that’s hard for many of us, especially if you’re in a helping profession or service-based organization. Avoid the tendency to shrug off your value. You are providing a fantastic service. Be proud, and go for the gold.
The trick is to be careful not to destroy your vision with doubt and criticism before you get started. Avoid judging your ideas before they are fully developed. Don’t allow stereotypes or even logistics to limit your thinking. Be sure that stakeholders and leaders are not too content with the current state of your organization to seek new ideas.
Don’t fall back on the we-tried-that-once or the that’s-not-how-we-operate mentality. Instead, reexamine each idea, approach, and path compared to experience to determine what’s different now. Both the business and the nonprofit world are changing rapidly in the face of new technology and growth. What worked for you before (or what didn’t work for you before) might change right before your eyes.
Don’t be afraid to think long-term either. Remember, none of these goals need to be achieved tomorrow. Shoot for the stars and then figure out the incremental steps to get there. Once you have your big stretch goal set, you can set your trajectory (and adjust your target as needed down the road).
Engage Your Entire Team When Possible
To successfully invest in your vision, your team must be fully engaged in the visioning and planning process. Your team’s engagement encourages commitment to ownership of your outcomes; it creates “buy-in.” Plus, the creation of the vision will provide focus, define direction, generate solutions, and improve effectiveness and efficiency. Not bad for a few days’ work!
You never know where the most significant ideas will come from. Don’t dismiss anyone in the process. Listen, share, and keep the conversation open and creative.
How do you start that visioning process?
Here’s a method of visioning that’s worked for my businesses in the past…
Start the process by establishing a collective mindset. Imagine it’s five years from today. Our organization is extremely successful. Now we need to define what that success looks like, as a team. To accomplish our vision, let’s address and discuss the following questions to first define and build our vision, and to identify issues and objectives that lead to long-term success. As always, for best results, I suggest you write down your answers. The success of these exercises depends on the open flow of communication and ideas. Often times an outside facilitator is best to establish the right framework and group dynamic to keep the ideas flowing and bring the process to a conclusion.
Again, pretend you’re in the future, looking back over the past five years of your business successes:
- Perform a SWOT Analysis — A SWOT analysis is an excellent practice for any entity, business, or organization. Look back as though you’ve achieved your goal. Ask what weaknesses did we overcome? What strengths and opportunities did we capitalize on? What new threats materialized?
- Identify Drivers — What drives our organization? How does that driver affect us or our clientele? How does it affect our other stakeholders?
Some potential areas of impact might include general economic conditions, technology, demographics, changing tastes or sophistication of the client, and changes in distribution channels (or in the case of a nonprofit, changes in your funding sources, grantmakers, and service areas).
- Mission — Do we need to change anything to be consistent with our values and our mission? Most organizations are quite mission-driven, but it’s incredible how any entity can quickly spiral away from its original values and path. It’s a good practice to revisit your values and mission regularly.
- Operations — Is our internal operational structure working optimally? Why? Have we improved efficiency? How have we overcome recent and past obstacles? What additional skills do we need to achieve this vision? What will our system requirements be? Are there areas that need to be shored or tightened up?
Be sure to cover all aspects of your operations. In the business world, this would include collections, credit, process, accounting, IT, customer service, manufacturing, purchasing, distribution, etc. In your world, it could consist of grants in process, salaries, promised funds, initiatives, events, fundraising expenditures, and client services.
- Think broadly – How has performance improved? How are operations running? Think internally, externally, and about other agents, new distributors or distribution methods, etc.
- Products or Services — Do we offer any new services? Are our products and services still meeting the needs of our population? Who are our competitors, and what are they doing better? Do our programs still meet the needs as we identified in our mission? Who else is competing with us for funding with similar services and would it make sense to consolidate?
- Clientele — Who is our target audience? Did we seek out or align better with a specific type of client? Why? How has our target market changed? Did we expand into new territories? Who might we work with next?
In the business world, we would also look at:
- Marketing, Sales & Promotion — Is our sales (or funding) department working optimally? Why? Is marketing providing the necessary support? What new marketing strategies did we introduce? How many development people are needed to achieve our goals?
- Production — How do we meet the needs of our customers? Did we change any of our delivery systems? Did we restructure any processes? Should we reassess our facilities? Can we move to cellular manufacturing?
- Sandbox — Are we in the same markets? Are we in new markets where we hold the # 1 or # 2 spot? Should we abandon any markets?
- Brand Promise — Is our brand promise still ____________? (Do you really do what you say you do?) Is there a more descriptive tagline now that we’ve made some changes?
- Community — How does our company (or our employees) serve our community? Did our success enhance the success of others? This area is probably one where the business world could take a cue from nonprofits. More and more, customers prefer companies who give back and serve the greater good. We could all take a lesson from nonprofit organizations on community service.
Answering the questions in this exercise will help you and your team to develop the details of that optimal future.
In the end, you’ll be looking at your personalized picture of your future success—and you’ll understand the events, changes, and components that allowed you to achieve that vision. Now that’s visionary thinking!
But there’s still more. How will you know you’ve achieved those goals? How will you measure your ideal business success?
It’s essential to define those success outcomes as well, so you know when you actually achieve your milestone. Remember the importance of setting goals and creating a measurable, achievable vision. “Saving the world” sounds noble, but how will you know when the world has actually been saved?
The future can seem uncertain, and it’s always hard to say what will happen tomorrow, but by creating a strong vision, you’ll have a clear roadmap and path to continue to forge ahead. I’ll leave you with a favorite quote by Alan Kay: “The best way to predict your future is to invent it.” Best of luck in inventing your future of success!
Featured and post images licensed for use via Pxhere.