How visionary is your vision statement?

Avoid these six common mistakes

Portrait of Kevin Brown, Co-founder & CEO of Mighty Ally

MLK had a dream. Gandhi inspired a nation. Ruth Bader Ginsburg pioneered for equality. Yaa Asantewaa led an Asante army against British colonizers. These social justice leaders had a vision.

BRCK is connecting Africa to the internet. Habitat for Humanity strives for a world where everyone has a decent place to live. And Blood:Water works to share in the joy and wonder of seeing the end of HIV/AIDS and water crises in our lifetime.

These nonprofits have a vision.

A vision statement is one part strategy, one part narrative. It takes your imagination and desired future state. Then weaves effective copywriting to communicate your plans succinctly and powerfully.

The individuals and organizations above started with good plans. But they also used the spoken and written word to inspire others into action.

Ethiopian woman drinking from her cupped hand from a clean water pump.

Blood:Water partners with locally-led African nonprofits to provide technical, financial, and organizational support. Their vision statement is one of the best around: “to share in the joy and wonder of seeing the end of HIV/AIDS and water crises in our lifetime.” It’s both tangible and inspirational in a single sentence.

Why visions matter.

A vision statement is one of the most critical elements of a good theory of change. Your reason is why you’re climbing the mountain in the first place. Your mission is the path you’ll take. And your vision is the mountaintop. The pinnacle. The envisioned endgame.

James Collins and Jerry Porras studied hundreds of companies in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. They found that a good vision engages people — it reaches out and grabs them. It’s tangible, energizing, and focused. People get it right away; it takes little or no explanation.

For people to follow you, they must understand where you’re going. If you have a clear vision, you will determine the right strategy. If you don’t have a clear vision, no strategy will save you.

This isn’t consultant speak. Or touchy-feely mumbo jumbo. The power of vision has been proven in business literature. The research in Built to Last demonstrated that companies with a clear vision have outperformed competitors by a factor of 12 since 1925. Forbes determined that employees who find their company’s vision to be meaningful have average engagement scores of 68%. While the average for those who don’t is just 16%.

Most nonprofit and foundation leaders have a vision. But that doesn’t mean they have a good vision statement. And simply having a vision statement doesn’t mean it’s visionary. So why are many vision statements flawed?

“Where there is no vision, there is no hope.”


Common vision statement mistakes.

1. Not putting it on paper

This may seem obvious, but it’s first on the list for a reason. Most leaders can see their vision. Their problem is thinking everyone else can see it too. The reality is, other people can’t. So leaders end up frustrated, staff confused, and great visions unrealized. You must get your vision out of your head and down on paper — clearly and concisely. In the same Forbes study above, 70% of employees don’t understand their company’s vision at all. So step one is to document your vision, share it, and reinforce it often.

Pro tip

If you’re struggling to articulate your vision, consider this fun but valuable brainstorming tool: the Cover Story Canvas. This vision-casting exercise allows your team to get into a future state of mind.

2. Mixing mission & vision

It’s surprising to see how often these two important elements are confused. Even Googling “great vision statements” turns up countless advice listing mission examples instead. Argh. A vision describes the future state. It should feel like a drop-the-mic, walk off stage moment. The state of being when you can stop your work, if reached. A mission statement says what you’ll do to reach that future. A mission is all about what you do today, not tomorrow.

Pro tip

When designing your theory of change, start with the need behind your work (the problem, people, and reason). Then move onto the results you’re aiming to achieve (vision). Finally, define your work (mission statement). By setting your sights on the mountaintop vision first, you’ll ensure the mission is a means to an end.

3. Changing your vision often

We’ve seen clients try to change their vision statement with each strategic planning retreat. You should spend the time to get your vision right. Then set it down and work toward it… for years if not decades. Sure, you can change your mission every 3–5 years as conditions on the ground change. Think about the mountain path analogy — maybe one path has boulders and ice, then you switch your mission to a faster route. But your vision statement should be firm — that north star and mountaintop which rarely (if ever) changes.

Pro tip

Set your vision broad enough to allow for changes to your mission or model over time. Once you get your vision statement right, you should be able to brainstorm multiple missions that could lead you there. But you shouldn’t be able to pivot toward multiple destinations. In fact, if your vision needs to radically change, it might be time for a new venture altogether.

4. Using cliché language

Just count how many vision statements start with “A world where.” And say something about “reaching full potential.” Or use the words transform and empower. No shame. But given all the unique products and programs in the social sector, we can craft equally unique visions. If pitching your vision to a funder who’s bombarded with similar messaging, you must break through the noise. Remember, your vision statement is a creative exercise and business planning combined.

Pro tip

Invite your team and board to write down five different words that describe your vision. Don’t worry about complete sentences yet. Just dream about what utopia feels like. What will human lives look like when you successfully deliver? Collect the input and create a weighted word cloud to see which terms emerge most often. Then create a single sentence (15–30 words max) that articulates the dream.

5. Not making it an end state

A lot of vision statements stop short of an ultimate mountaintop. They’re more like a rolling hill or maybe basecamp along the way. Good visions should be future tense, aspirational, directional, audacious, and possible. But they should also be final. The problem with wording like “reaching full potential” is that it doesn’t tell you what will result. Even the broadest vision possible like “world peace” leaves a lot to interpretation. When a funder or team member sees your vision, they should know exactly where and when your work will end. It can almost — almost — be measured.

Pro tip

Take your current vision or brainstormed options. Read aloud and ask yourself “then what will happen?” With that response, ask “then what?” again. And again. Keep asking “then what?” until you’ve reached the mountaintop. It’s like the future-looking reverse of asking Five Whys.

6. Not bringing it down to Earth

Crafting a solid vision statement is just the beginning. But most visions will take a lifetime to accomplish. If they’re possible to fully accomplish at all. Even once you craft a solid vision statement, the immediate next question should become, “how?” In other words, people need a more tangible, shorter-term view of your desired future state. That’s where strategic planning comes in. If you’re not actively doing something (many things!) to achieve your vision, it’s wasted breath.

Pro tip

Use your vision statement to craft a 10-year target or BHAG (big hairy audacious goal). A BHAG attracts supporters, creates a starting point for shorter-term planning, and forces proactivity vs. reactivity. This target will be much nearer in time and much more measurable than your vision statement. Even better, create a 3-Year Picture that lists out what the vision could look like in bullet point form. From there, you’ve got the basis for your annual planning.

“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”


Some final encouragement.

Your bold vision should at first seem ridiculous.

If it’s not, go bigger.

Because people usually dislike revolutionary ideas when they first hear about them.

So nonprofit and foundation leaders: don’t accept today’s norms.

Center your brand on the north star — the ultimate impact. Then work backward to map out the path up the mountain.

And ignore all the detractors along the way.

Because your team, funders, and community may not yet have the same context about how things will be different in your desired future state.

That’s why brand communications are just as critical as innovative products and programs. Your job as an impact builder is to persuade early like-minded supporters and staff to join the audacious movement.

Imagine, create, *and* communicate: the future is yours to build.

“Visionaries will always meet opposition from weak minds, but the seeds they plant always save the world.”


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