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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Crafting the Language of Vision

By Jeff McLinden

The first President Bush wasn't alone in not really getting the "vision thing." My observation is that far too many nonprofits tend to operate a bit on the "pinball" model of defining strategy.  Like the rolling, steel ball, their leaders "bounce" about from bumper to flipper to occasional desired target.  They have a tendency to be reactive to outside forces that determine their trajectory, moving toward opportunities that become available, rather than proactive in defining challenging opportunities or initiatives and crafting the strategic plans to achieve them. 

Yet, even for these organizations, it is quite common to deal daily in pursuits that are characterized by strong visionary elements:

• Formidable challenges...
• Challenging objectives...
• Significant obstacles...
• Aggressive action plans...
• Time sensitive achievements...

What many "don't get" is the language that helps define and clarify "vision" for their constituencies -- both internal and external.  Effective "packaging" of strategic directions is often the difference between defining a compelling vision and business as usual.  And this can make all the difference between a successful development effort and failure.

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Take a moment to examine the goals you are striving to achieve.  Your immediate plans may not appear to be aggressive enough to thoroughly excite the uninitiated. But what is the ultimate outcome if you continue to move forward -- and to meet or exceed your goals?  Then what?  What can be achieved?  How long will it take to achieve it?  What will be the impact of accomplishing that "final step?"  When you begin to paint that picture in such a way that it stirs your soul, then you are beginning to understand how to "package" vision that will engage others.     

There are three qualities that define powerful visions: 

1. They should have SUBSTANCE.
2. They should have SCOPE.
3. They should have STRETCH.

Visions should have substance.  By this I mean they should deal with issues or concerns that truly matter, that are consequential in their impact.  Vague ideas or concepts are not visionary.  Neither are undefined targets.  If targets are uncertain, how will you know if you hit them?  Write your goals so they are clearly defined -- they have numbers, deadlines, and defined consequences (create an impact statement -- what happens if we achieve this; what happens if we don't?).

Compelling visions have scope.  Compelling visions push beyond existing boundaries, existing conditions, or the capabilities of your organization.  They define a range of focus that is broader than we can presently see. 

Visions should have stretch.  We know there are always organizational limitations of capacity -- in terms of resources, of personnel, of reach or ability.  Operating within your capacity is one thing...and many nonprofits are very good at "maintaining" what they have.  But real vision may be about increasing your capacity that you may accomplish significantly more than your current resources allow!  A visionary objective recognizes the practical limitations of an organization -- and seeks to stretch beyond them. 

Steve Case wisely observed, "Vision without execution is merely hallucination."  You certainly don't want to position your nonprofit as "audacious bordering on asinine."  And I don't mean to imply a level of enthusiasm is needed for unrealistic achievement.  But what I DO mean is that, from top to bottom, the language of your organization must begin to reflect a "dare to dream" enthusiasm that is beyond "business as usual."  Your organization’s work is still amazing to the vast majority of those who appreciate and support your cause.  But, as insiders, we tend to treat it internally as casually as a dry cleaner who goes about his business every day.  

You and your organization must adopt a sense of amazement, enthusiasm, and gusto in your pursuit of visionary objectives and opportunities.  To package those in such a way that demonstrates your organization is both a vital enterprise and one that is worthy of people's interest, enthusiasm, and participation.  Vision is about destinations, yes.  But COMPELLING vision is about galvanizing the minds, hearts, resources and energies of people who are willing to engage in pursuing those destinations alongside you. 

You simply cannot mount a strong and compelling campaign for any cause if the call to action is uncertain, weak or nonexistent.  Packaging – i.e. the language of vision -- truly does matter.  

Jeff McLinden is vice president of McConkey-Johnston International a consulting firm with more than 30 years of service to nonprofit clients, and is president of Fundraising Success Team, an online community for people involved in nonprofit fundraising.  Jeff has taught at dozens of national conferences and may be reached at jeff_mclinden@mcconkey-johnston.com.


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