Developing Your Nonprofit’s Vision Statement

The work of developing a vision statement is challenging. It is sometimes so difficult a task that organizations begin operating without them, only to find themselves lost without a North Star. Other times organizations develop their vision at the beginning, but find that the vision needs to be revised as the organization grows.

Opinions vary about how regularly you should visit your vision statement. Our view is that you should check in on both your mission and vision statements each time you engage in long-term strategic planning which, for most nonprofits, is generally every three years.

The following process is appropriate for organizations in need of developing a vision statement. If you already have a vision statement and need to revisit it, yourselves whether your vision statement continues to meet the criteria. If it does, you’re all set. If it doesn’t, you can use this process to revise the vision statement. 

Step One: Identify the Participants to the Process 

The two most common process variations for getting the vision statement written are: 1) A vision statement is developed by the staff and proposed to the board; 2) A vision statement is jointly written by board and staff members. The best process for your organization will be largely a function of your organization’s culture. Another question to ask yourself before getting underway is whether it is advisable to gather feedback from the entire workforce before beginning the drafting process. This can be accomplished by an online survey and is often helpful as a means to get buy-in from your full staff.

Step Two: Familiarize Yourself with the Definition of a Vision Statement. 

A vision statement is:

  • A statement of the desired future state of the organization
  • A statement of where the organization is headed, what it intends to be, or how it wishes to be perceived

Step Three: Familiarize Yourself with the Characteristics of an Effective Vision Statement. 

Six characteristics of an effective vision:

  1. Conjures up images and pictures of what it will be like to achieve the organization’s vision
  2. Exciting and compelling
  3. Clear and easy to grasp
  4. Measurable
  5. Has appeal to a wide audience
  6. Represents a big, hairy audacious goal

Step Four: Dream Big!

Reflect silently on the question below. After a few minutes of reflection, write whatever images come to mind. Discuss your ideas as a group.

When you allow yourself to dream on a large scale about what our nonprofit might accomplish over the next 25 years, what pictures come to mind?

Step Five: Brainwrite & Brainstormstorm

Reflect silently on the question below. After a few minutes of reflection write the words, phrases, or concepts that come to mind. Discuss your ideas as a group.

When you think of the desired future state for nonprofit, what words, phrases or sentences come to mind?

Step Six: Write a Vision Statement

Generate different combinations of the words, phrases, and concepts to form possible vision statements until you reach a consensus.

Step Seven: Submit Vision Statement to Board for Approval

The new or revised vision statement must be approved by the board of directors in order to be be adopted for use by the organization.


Strategic Planning: 12 Best Practices

There is no single best practice for how to do successful strategic planning. But there are several proven and effective practices that are common to the planning processes of highly successful organizations.

As a client of New Chapter Coaching, you can count on us to design your strategic planning process drawing upon these twelve best practices:

  1. Systematic – the well-defined and repeatable planning process outlines who does what, when, and why
  2. Fact-based – plans are built from extracting larger meaning from data and information; analysis of these facts supports improvement, innovation, and prioritization
  3. Participatory – key stakeholders are involved in all stages of the development and implementation of strategy
  4. Leverages – the organization’s plan builds on the organization’s strengths, core competencies, and competitive advantages
  5. Challenges – the planning process challenges assumptions about the organization, drives out-of-the box thinking, and generates stretch goals
  6. Flexible – the process is guided by a philosophy of continuous improvement, and the plan is flexible enough to allow changes to the plan as conditions change
  7. Balanced – the plan balances short- and long-term challenges and opportunities, as well as balances the need of all key stakeholders
  8. Actionable – translating strategy into action is a key to making sure your strategic thinking results in positive, sustainable change for your organization
  9. Communicated – there is transparency about the process; once the goals are set, every member of the organization knows the goals and regularly communicates about strategy/performance
  10. Measured – a performance measure system exists which enables members of the organization to systematically monitor and assess actual performance against goals
  11. Linked – budgets are linked to strategy; individual plans are linked to organizational plans; performance reviews are linked to strategy
  12. Accountableevery member of the organization knows his/her role in ensuring the organization meets its goals and is held accountable for doing his/her part to achieve success


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Your Essential Planning Checklist

There is only one reason not to engage in strategic planning and that is when the conditions for successful planning are not in place. So what does that mean? What are those conditions? Strategic planning is always a resource-intensive process. Here’s a list of five conditions every organization will want to make sure it has in place before it engages in its planning:

  1. Organizational capacity and motivation to monitor and implement the plan, and to hold itself accountable for the outcomes. There’s no sense in spending the time and effort to create a plan only to have it sit on a shelf. If that’s what has happened in past, ask yourselves how this year is going to be different. Why this year must be different? The executive director is surely accountable to the board for the plan’s outcomes; however, the board must never forget that it is, in the final analysis, accountable to its organization’s donors and constitutents.
  2. Willingness to take on the organization’s “sacred cows.” The best strategic planning process challenges everyone to think about how the organization can use its resources (time, talent, money) most effectively to impact and advance the mission; for this process to soar, its participants must be invited to respectfully challenge every aspect of the organization.
  3. Demonstrable commitment by the board of directors and management to the planning process. By “demonstrable commitment,” I mean to suggest a willingness to be intellectually and emotionally involved in and to otherwise support the process from beginning to end.
  4. Absence of significant organizational conflict or transition at either the board or board/staff level. In order for the board to engage in stategic planning, it will need to be able talk and work together for hours at a time. It will also need to be able to reach consensus about the organization’s priorities. If, for whatever reason, sufficient tension exists at either the board or the board/staff level to make this task impossible or extremely difficult, I recommend the planning be postponed until after the underlying issues can be addressed and resolved.
  5. Willingness and ability to commit sufficient resources (and in this case I’m referring to the money) to the planning process. Facilitating your own strategic planning process to save a few dollars is generally inadvisable. When a member of the staff or board is the facilitator, s/he steps out of the role of participant in order to play the role of facilitator and her/his voice is lost from the process.  A professional facilitator is both neutral to the outcome and has no allegiances to particular individuals; her job is to professionally guide the group to the outcome of a well-conceived plan aligned with the mission and grounded in the organization’s resources. A strategic planning process that is effectively done will pay for itself over and over again for years to come.


Listen Up: You Have a Lot to Learn

Nonprofit organizations do amazing work. They are continually asked to do more with less and are rarely given the credit they deserve for making miracles happen. They move at the speed of light — and then strategic planning happens.

Once a year or perhaps every few years, nonprofit organizations slow down just long enough to take a look at themselves. And that’s when the opportunity presents itself; that’s when the organization has the opportunity to do what it’s not permitted to do during the rest of the year by virtue of its day-to-day pace. It is at this moment, that the board and staff members have this delicious opportunity not only to listen to each other, but also to the organization’s external stakeholders.

As a consultant who interviews stakeholders about the hopes, fears, views, and visions they have for organizations they care so passionately about, I can tell you this is one of the most powerful tools that exists for moving an organization forward.

There are many powerful outcomes from interviewing stakeholders; here are three. 

Quality Data:

Interviews of stakeholders are recommended in order to scan an organization’s environment to find out what key individuals think about the organization’s performance, priorities, and future. The data these interviews generate is as powerful as the questions posed, the process used in selecting stakeholders, and the consultant conducting the interviews and analyzing the data. When the entire process is done well, the data informs the board planning session and the development of long-term goals and objectives.

Deeper Thinking:

By virtue of being interviewed by an outside consultant, people raise their level of thinking; some will even prepare for their interview. They want to be thoughtful and thorough; they want to share smart ideas which are representative of their best thinking.  As a result, the quality of the feedback they provide in the interviews is generally high. In addition, they often report that they learned a lot from giving the interview, resulting in the internal stakeholders being better prepared going into the board planning session.

Positive Message:

Thirdly, there’s the message your organization communicates when it elects to have its stakeholders (especially its external stakeholders and staff members) interviewed for their opinions. Having interviewed stakeholders, I can tell you that, nearly universally, people appreciate being asked for their views and many even find the process fun; this is so even though the process takes their time (30-60 minutes). In my experience, most are only too happy to give the time.

It is alarmingly rare how often external stakeholders get their voices heard outside of a process like this. In my experience, they want their voices to be heard and, regardless of their level of modesty, believe they have something to offer. So ask! When you do, you will deepen the organizational bond with those stakeholders, raise the quality of the planning conversations, and develop a strategic plan based on the views of your organization’s most valuable players.


Strategic Planning: Starting With the End in Sight

It is through the strategic planning process that the board, in collaboration with the staff, sets the organization’s vision. Without this setting and resetting of the organization’s vision, the organization often finds that it has drifted from its mission, wasted the valuable resources entrusted to it, and failed to meet the real needs of its constituents.

So where to begin? With strategic planning, the end is a great place to start. How does your organization define success? What does success look like? Knowing the definition of success for your organization is essential to writing an effective strategic plan.

I am a big fan of a 2004 article by Stanford researchers Colby, Stone, and Carttar called “Zeroing in On Impact.” In this article, Colby, Stone, and Carttar discuss two concepts: intended impact and theory of change.

Intended impact and theory of change provide a bridge between a nonprofit’s mission and its programmatic activities. Intended impact is a statement or series of statements about what the organization is trying to achieve and will hold itself accountable for within some manageable period of time.  “Zeroing In On Impact” Colby, Stone & Carttar, Stanford Social Innovation Review (2004).

Using this framework, I recommend your board create an intended impact statement that specifies quantifiable outcomes it can realistically achieve within a set time frame (i.e. five years). This process is best accomplished with the assistance of a competent consultant who will facilitate the process. Properly engaging in this process will require your board to prioritize some desired outcomes over others. To be sure, prioritizing and reaching consensus about desired outcomes are not easy tasks. However, if you’re doing this, your board is engaging in the most important board-level work of the planning process.

While trying to create your organization’s intended impact statement, you’ll explore questions such as:

  1. Who are our intended beneficiaries?
  2. What are their primary needs?
  3. What benefits do our programs/services create?
  4. Do the benefits match the needs?
  5. What work won’t we do in the coming year(s)?
  6. If we could create just three measurable changes in our outcomes over the next five years, what would those be?
  7. What work will we take off our plates in order to be more effective?

Once the desired outcomes are prioritized, the staff can more easily prioritize activities and programs based on the degree to which each can contribute to the organization’s desired ends. However, without a set of prioritized outcomes to guide it, an organization can spend a great deal of time, energy, and money on good ideas and well-designed programs and not significantly impact its targeted constituency.

With a well-conceived intended impact statement in place, a strong staff can often engage in critical thinking and planning about theory of change in order to make recommendations back to the board. This involves the staff considering the strategies it has been utilizing to achieve the desired outcomes and whether there might not be more effective ones. The staff is often in the best position to analyze how the organization’s programs might be changed or adjusted in order to more effectively get from resources to impact.

If an organization begins its strategic planning at the end–by defining the most important outcomes it seeks to achieve–it will then truly be able to be strategic with its precious resources, using them to serve its intended beneficiaries in ways that will yield the greatest impact for them and the organization.


January 4, 2010


Who’s Best for Your Organization: Superhero or Leader?

You don’t need to turn on Saturday cartoons to find a superhero. Today’s nonprofit organizations are filled with them.  Women and men who, time and time again, accomplish what the rest of us think isn’t possible with the resources at hand.

Webster’s describes a “superhero” as having “extraordinary or superhuman powers.” Nonprofit organizations everywhere are led by extraordinary women and men who work long hours and make great sacrifices for their organizations, staff members, and constituents. Their passion is amazing, their commitment to their causes is without end, and their results are truly superhuman.

But here are some questions I raise for our collective consideration: Is the existing model–one that encourages executive directors (and other staff members) to work at superhuman levels day in and day out–one that is in the best interests of any organization? Can this model be sustained for as long as the organization needs to exist in order to achieve its mission? Are we experiencing a greater number of executive transitions as a result of our use of this model? If so, at what cost?

I’m here to suggest we encourage and support today’s executive directors in cutting back on the “superhuman” part. Human, not superhuman, must be the standard that we as boards of directors and as a society accept–and appreciate–from our executive directors and the nonprofits they lead. This is especially true in times where resources are more scarce. Today, executive directors are commonly asked to do more–not less–on less. Say what? Isn’t this the very definition of superhuman?

In order to achieve the organizational change I suggest, the executive director needs the help of the board of directors. If an organization’s key priorities are to be changed–which priorities ultimately drive the allocation of resources, including staff time–the board must make this happen.  When the board of directors takes a proactive step towards realistically adjusting the organization’s priorities, it will move towards a healthier and more sustainable operating model with a leader, not a superhero, at the helm.

-July 18, 2009


Next Steps After Your Executive Resigns

It would be a mistake to think that, just because layoffs continue and good jobs are hard to find, your executive director will never leave his/her position. Not true. Executive directors aren’t chained to their desks (or at least I don’t advise that!) and there’s no involuntary servitude. Life happens, even in a down economy. And you need to be prepared when it does.

If you have a good succession plan on file then that’s a significant advantage in your favor and you’ll turn your attention to implementation. But what if you don’t? What do you do?

The first thing I urge a board to do is stop and breathe. Now breathe some more! It is common for boards to react to the resignation of an executive director with fear and panic. Afterall, with that executive’s decision to leave, countless responsibilities that were routinely handled by the executive director just got shifted to the board of directors. Ugh. The additional weight on their shoulders is almost palpable to them.

But remember: change brings both opportunities and threats, and it is up to a board to maximize the opportunities and minimize the threats. What opportunities, some ask? We’ve just lost our fearless leader?

One of the organization’s greatest opportunities during a period of change is the opportunity to conduct an organizational assessment. It’s wise for boards to take a look at where they are and where they want to go. I encourage boards to spend time revising (or developing) their set of prioritized outcomes. This organizational change moment is an unique opportunity for the board to take the organization in a direction that will make a greater impact on its mission. Two other opportunities include to:

  • Bring a divided board together or tranform an underperforming board through working together during the executive transition; and
  • Hire an executive director with the core competencies needed to take the organization in the direction necessary to achieve the prioritized outcomes.

When the executive director steps down, the organization needs its board chair to step up. One of the first actions the board chair must do is form an executive transition committee. This committee is customarily tasked with the dual responsibilities of: 1) keeping the organization’s operation as close to status quo as possible; and 2) searching for and selecting a new executive director (assuming that is what the full board votes to do).  

Among the most crucial early decision this committee (or the full board) will make is who will lead the organization in the interim. The most common options include: hiring an acting director or interim director to do all or certain aspects of the executive’s work or having the staff and/or board absorb the executive’s essential functions during the transition. Before a board makes a decision, it is well advised to take into consideration the following kinds of issues:

  • What critical work must get done during the transitional period? What deadlines are we facing?
  • What skills do they require?
  • Which ones can board members take responsibility for?
  • What additional staffing can we truly afford? 
  • If we pay for staffing during the transition, what other activities will we have to forego? 
  • If a board member steps down from the board to be acting or interim director, what will happen when they want to come back on the board after the new executive director is hired?
  • If a staff member is given additional responsibilities in the interm to serve as acting director, will they be able to handle transitioning back to their old position after the new executive director is hired?

Effective executive transition management requires boards to govern in a more proactive way. Figuring out how to do this most efficiently and effectively sometimes requires the services of a consultant experienced in executive transition management. When hiring an outside consultant, you’d be well advised to consider the scope and depth of her/his experience advising nonprofit organizations about executive transition, as well her/his related nonprofit management experience.

Finally, you need a map. That is, after all, how you know you’re on course, right? So in this case, I recommend you develop a transition plan. It is nothing more complicated than an operational plan for the 4-12 months the organization will likely be without a permanent executive.

Ideally, the organization will have conducted its organizational assessment first. In doing so, it will have asked and answered questions about mission, goals, objectives, programs, resources, etc. Once that has been done, the executive transition committee can develop the transition plan to guide the work of the organization during the transition period. If you create and implement a document outlining who will do what and by when you will be many steps closer to a smooth and effective transition. In turn, this will enable your organization to capitalize on its opportunities and your new executive director to get off to a great start from day one.


Maximizing Your New Executive’s Chances of Success

In connection with an executive transition, boards of directors often spend countless hours (more often than not unpaid) over a period of many months searching for the candidate they believe will best lead their organization into the future. The direct and indirect costs expended by an organization to recruit and hire a new executive are significant, though most organizations do not calculate these costs. If organizations did track these expenses, I’m rather confident that they would spend more time in the post-hire period ensuring that this critical investment was protected. Instead, too often boards of directors, fatigued by the search and relieved to have found who they believe is the ideal candidate, turn the reigns over to the new leader and breathe a sigh of relief. Their work, so they think, is done, at least for a while. In my view, if boards of directors want their new executive directors to succeed–and want to avoid having to navigate another executive transition anytime soon–then they must recognize that their most important work is in the months (sometimes as many as 12 mos.) ahead of them.

In order to succeed, new executive directors need a wide range of post-hire support from across the organization. Boards of directors in particular must provide executive directors with five critical things:

  1. Job description. Make sure your new executive director has a copy of this document.
  2. Roles and responsibilities. Provide a document that distinguishes the roles and responsibilities of the executive director from those of the board of directors or, at a minimum, have a discussion with her/him about these issues;
  3. Expectations. Provide a document outlining what the board believes it should be able to expect from the executive and what the executive should be able to expect from the board of directors or, at a minimum, have a discussion with her/him about these issues;
  4. Monitoring. Provide a document outlining how and when the executive will be monitored/supervised (e.g. weekly check-ins with Board President or monthly Executive Committee meetings); and
  5. Evaluation. Provide a document outlining how and when the executive will be evaluated. (e.g. 90 day evaluation; annual performance review)

Over the years, I’ve heard more than a few horror stories about the actions of boards of directors in connection with the orientation period of their new executives. These stories compel me to share a few more tips about how to ensure that you don’t unwittingly diminish the tenure of your new executive.

  • Consider a policy that prevents your outgoing executive director from cycling immediately onto the board of directors. New executive directors deserve the opportunity to create their own vision and demonstrate their leadership free of the complications of a former executive director.
  • Respect your new executive director in how you make decisions about who sits on your board of directors and in what positions. I’ve heard of two scenarios that are very troubling and highly problematic for new executive directors: 1) organizations that take the names of losing executive director finalists and turn the names over to the board development committee only to lead to those finalists being added to the board of directors; and 2) organizations that quickly promote to board president a member of their board of directors who was an unsuccessful candidate for executive director.  If these individuals applied for the director position, clearly they have ideas about how the organization should be run. Refrain from putting such individuals in a position where they might–at the expense of your new executive director–try to impress the rest of the board with why they made the wrong decision about who to hire.
  • Be sure to formally evaluate your executive and to do so in a timely manner. I recommend that you conduct 90 day and annual evaluations (and others, if necessary.). This process is not only good HR practice, but is also feedback which is often desired by the executive in order to help her/him enhance her/his performance. Another benefit to the evaluation process is that it sometimes reveals to a board of directors that an executive director is struggling more than the board realizes–and than the executive has admitted–and that the board needs to take action to address the executive’s needs.

If the candidate was good enough to hire, s/he is good enough to continue to invest post-hire support in until you–and they–are confident that they are “up and running” in their new job. If you’ve made a good hire, this is one investment you won’t regret.


Leading Change in Challenging Times

Though executive directors are well known for carrying superhuman burdens, this is no time for single-handed heroics. If a nonprofit is facing a crisis of any magnitude, the executive director’s most urgent task is to accurately communicate the size and scope of the crisis to the organization’s board of directors. That open and honest communication will enable the executive director and board of directors to tackle the organization’s challenges strategically and as a team. Their first task will be to communicate the urgency of the problem to those others who need to know. A well-conceived call to action that appropriately expresses a sense of urgency and a vision for change will lead the organization in the direction of proactive, transformative change.

We are certainly in an historical period of change. For that reason, it is more important than ever for nonprofit leaders–executive directors and board members alike–to be prepared to demonstrate strong and strategic leadership. Not all nonprofit organizations will survive the current economic challenges. Those nonprofit organizations that will come out of these challenging times even stronger than they went in will be those whose leadership engages their organizations in critical analysis of both the challenges and the opportunities they face, develop a realistic plan for addressing both, and are best able to lead them through a throughtful and strategic process for making the changes necessary to enhance their organizational effectiveness.

Suggested Action Items

  1. Assess Your Situation – Take stock of all your available resources–and I’m talking about more than money here, folks. Sure, your cash on hand and cash flow are important, but I’m suggesting you identify the other organizational assets. On whom can the organization count at this time? Staff, board, members and donors, other external stakeholders and allies, and the press? What lists does the organization own that it might leverage? Scan your entire environment. Leave no stone unturned.
  2. Determine the Size and Scope of the Challenge – How large is the problem? How old is the problem? What is its cause? Is there another way to look at it? Until you get a realistic handle on the nature and extent of the problem, you won’t be communicate about it confidently and thus to enlist all the people you’ll need to solve it.
  3. Communicate a Sense of Urgency and a Vision To Your Stakeholders: Call Them To Action! Once the executive director and board of directors has collaborated on the creation of a positive, proactive vision for how to move the organization forward beyond its challenge, it’s time to enlist the troops! Getting first the staff, then donors, then others on board takes the following: a positive attitude; patience and persistence (because change often does not come quickly or easily); and a commitment to being focused on the organization’s greatest asset — it’s people.

 As New Chapter Coaching’s tagline suggests, in order to transform your organization’s future, it’s necessary to take the time to fully explore its present.


Strong Leadership Required: Nonprofit Management During Challenging Economic Times

Our current economy is creating challenges for the nonprofit sector, a sector historically strained to generate the revenues it must have to meet the ever-expanding needs of the millions of individuals it serves each year. During average years, nonprofit executives are called upon to demonstrate inspired leadership and creative vision. During these unprecedented times, however, the demands on nonprofit executives are greater than ever.

With increased costs and reduced revenue, many nonprofit organizations are facing deficits. For some executives, this is new and uncharted territory. They are faced with decisions about cost containment and whether to reduce services and/or personnel. These decisions are often among the most difficult decisions an executive faces. These are times when confidence and competence are paramount in an executive.

In challenges I see opportunities and this challenge is no different. This economic shift provides a board of directors (and other stakeholders) with a critical opportunity to see more clearly an organization’s capacity to weather storms and its leader’s strength and effectiveness to lead the organization in difficult times as well as good.  As Warren Buffet famously said “[i]t’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.”  The tide has indeed gone out for many nonprofit (and for-profit) organizations. Without strong leadership, both at the executive and board levels, there is little doubt but that many nonprofit organizations will fail in our current economic climate. Alternatively, though, if organizations act early and proactively to strengthen their leadership and identify and address any weaknesses, they are likely to come through this turbulent period a stronger organization.

Suggested Action Items:

  1. Board Members: Have you conducted a review of your executive director in the past year? A performance review (ideally a 360 review) should be conducted annually (more frequently in first year). It is recommended that the review include a self-evaluation to be completed by the executive director. The evaluation process provides a good opportunity to discuss the following with the executive: roles and responsibilities; priorities; expectations; professional development in the coming year, etc. Executive Directors: If your board has not reviewed you, ask for it from your Board Chair, first verbally and then in writing.
  2. Make time to review the current year’s strategic plan and financials. This data is critical to realistically projecting performance in the coming year. Compare what you set out to do this past year with what you actually accomplished in all priority areas. In those areas where you fell short, identify what happened and whether the factors will be in play again in the coming year.
  3. Consider retaining an independent third party to conduct an organizational assessment. This objective evaluation will provide you with information about the organization’s effectiveness and capacity in various areas and will be the foundation for a plan:
  • to address an organizational shortfall/deficit;
  • to identify economies of scale;
  • to approach funders (individual or foundation) for money for capacity-building or other support; and/or
  • to conduct annual or long-term strategic planning.