What is a vision statement for?
A common foundation of all approaches to social impact is a plan for creating the intended change. This plan specifies how, and why, specific activities will bring about change, including a vision, or description, of the intended change. A vision statement answers the question: “How is the world made better by our work?”
A good vision statement inspires an organizations’ leaders, staff, clients, and others to each tell their own personal story of social change and impact in their own words, but united in a common understanding of a future worth fighting for. In a nonprofit context, the vision statement is usually articulated by a Board, and grounded in deep listening to stakeholders facilitated by a CEO, ED, or other senior staff.
Vision statements may not get the respect they deserve. Mission statements get more attention—that’s where the action happens—and sometimes the vision statement feels like a tagline that rides along in the background, a placeholder for our dreams about solving wicked problems. This is risky. A lack of clarity around the intended change—the future vision—is enough to seriously derail the achievement of the mission, other implementation and impact measurement work.
What happens when your vision isn’t clear enough?
Take this example: a large nonprofit with over 40 years as a respected authority training people in the “helping professions” nearly imploded while navigating the covid-19 crisis. Their Board, while composed of skilled and committed volunteers, had not articulated a vision that was sufficiently clear to guide their strategic decisions and resolve internal conflicts. Their vision was quite broad, perhaps a reflection of some unresolved differences of opinion between Board and senior leadership.
As a result, the Board had been mired several times in detailed review and oversight of operational decisions (What thickness for furniture upholstery? What standards for artwork in their facilities? What are the prices for specific services?). These were “conflicts-by-proxy” for defining the future vision. They left volunteer Board members feeling exhausted and their senior staff feeling resentful and micromanaged. They had also still avoided hard conversations to settle the vision question ‘once and for all’. This nonprofit came back from the brink by recognizing the root of their internal conflicts. They made a commitment to revisit their shared understanding of their vision, their “ultimate why”, as the foundation for future strategy and planning.
Why might leaders struggle with effective visions for change and social impact?
Struggling with developing an effective vision is fairly common. This in part because it requires people to work through disagreements, have hard conversations, and say “no” to things in order to get down to a vision that is clear enough.
Sometimes a strength be a weakness. Some of the qualities that make good leaders and organizers for tackling complex social problems may also be inversely correlated with the qualities for writing a strong vision statement.
“Reasonable people”—the kind that we often choose to lead organizations that tackle complex social issues—are often valued because of their willingness to learn along the way, change plans if necessary, and prioritize the integrity of a process over the achievement of specific outcomes “at any cost”. Dealing with complexity usually comes with a tolerance for ambiguity built in, so the “most reasonable people” may also be more comfortable with a vision that is a bit ambiguous. This may result in a vision that is heavily qualitative and leaves too much to the audience’s imagination. See “buzzword bingo” below, the type of vision statement that borders into the territory of a ‘you had to be there’ inside joke if you’re not up to speed with the jargon in the industry/sector.
“Compassionate people”—exactly who we (usually) want to have making decisions—will (usually) strive to be inclusive. Part of being inclusive may involve building agreement around a shared vision across a diverse range of people with different expectations, experiences, and interests. Naturally, this task is easier if the organization’s vision is the sort of broad, overarching statement that is easy to understand and agree with. However, a vision statement that is too easy to agree with may suffer from avoiding conflicts over important questions about what is meaningful, important, or worth working for. See the “word salad” statement below, where (in the spirit of fairness, of course) everyone consulted gets to contribute two words to the statement!
Those of you in organizations with visionary but unreasonable and ruthless leaders may have other issues to contend with, but that’s a topic for another post…
What makes a good vision statement?
Before getting into what makes a good vision statement, there are several common varieties of bad vision statements to avoid:
- The navel gazer: e.g. “We will be the best-in-class organization in our sector, and extend our reach to three new cities”. This vision may be inspiring for a few Operations and Marketing people, but it’s too focused on how the organization might have changed in 5+ years time. So much so that it doesn’t describe the “so what” i.e. how does anyone actually benefit from this?
- The misplaced milestone: e.g. “All the teachers in our city have what they need to do their jobs well”. This describes a medium- or long- term outcome—perhaps even an inspirational or aspirational one—but it’s not the ‘end of line’ of the chain of events that lead to some worthwhile impact. “So what?”—what happens next?
- The buzzword bingo: e.g. “Empowered markets delivering scalable impact solutions”. Every word in this vision requires a definition or explanation in order to be understood in any meaningful, real-world terms.
- The better world: e.g. literally “a better world”… a vision so broad (and so vague) that it’s impossible to disagree with! This unfortunately offers no help to anyone trying to decide how to achieve it or what success really looks like.
- The word salad: e.g. “A future where our dedication to innovation, quality, excellence and observing the highest ethical standards engenders respect for each other, highlights our unique strengths and cultural differences, and empowers…. (and so on)”. An exhausting tangle of qualitative descriptors that confuse, rather than clarify, often driven by a kind of anxious thinking that if the vision doesn’t explicitly name ‘justice’, for example, then justice isn’t part of the vision.
A strong, inspiring vision statement:
- Can be short (e.g. Oxfam: “A just world without poverty”) or long (e.g. Creative Commons: Nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.”) but ideally keep it to one clear sentence.
- Doesn’t explain everything about how the vision is achieved.
- Doesn’t overlap with your mission statement, which answers the question: “What is the work we’re uniquely able to do, in pursuit of the vision?”.
- Does have to describe a clear and long-term change i.e. something that one could observe and definitely say whether it had been achieved, wholly or partly, or not.
Hard conversations Made Easier
Good vision statements are simple to read, but can be hard to write. Here are some thoughts about how to work with a group to write a great vision statement that lasts.
A Theory of Change helps
A Theory of Change (which can be a diagram, a story, or a hybrid of both) is a great tool to explore relationships between actions, outcomes, and a long-term vision for change. A good facilitator can help you have a conversation about Theory of Change that unpacks all the assumptions about why the vision is important, and how your work contributes to achieving it. This can give some order and structure to what can otherwise be a conversation that veers wildly from the cosmic-level big-picture perspective to being down in the weeds.
Hard conversations are hard
Our visions of the future are often deeply personal and exploring them with others requires a certain level of vulnerability—communicating across our differences is especially challenging. Not all organizations are prepared to create an environment where people of different races, genders, or socio-economic backgrounds can feel safe to ‘speak their truth’ without fear of reprisal, or have open, honest discussions over the points where they disagree. It’s important to have a facilitator that is prepared to see a process through the ‘deep work’ of developing a future vision when it gets uncomfortable.
Inspiring is not necessarily comforting
One of the more troubling aspects of the accelerating and overlapping global crises of climate change and social inequality is seeing how much our visions of the future, when we dig into them, still imply the “absurdly extravagant energy use that props up a modern lifestyle”. By pretending that the stagnation and decline of industrial nations isn’t real we “simply guarantee that the stagnation will deepen and the decline will accelerate” (source).
This is a very uncomfortable conversation for most people and is especially difficult when we assume that vision statements should be inspiring and uplifting (“good vibes only”). It’s important to have a visioning process that faces up to real, evidence-based contextual information about sustainability and social change. This ensures that you can arrive at a vision that inspires hope nonetheless; rather than clinging to a future vision already proven to be unsustainable, or only attainable by a privileged few, or both.
What is your vision?
Can your vision be made better, clearer, more inspiring? Do you want to include a more diverse range of stakeholders in conversation about what your vision really means, and how you’ll work towards it? These are critically important for all organizations to have in times of great change. Let us help you get started.
Garth Yule advises organizations on values, vision, social purpose and impact strategy. To find out more about working on your business, reach him at [email protected] to book a call.