Photo by Vincentiu Solomon on Unsplash.
5 min Read
February 12, 2020

The 4 levels of nonprofit vision statements

Every nonprofit should have a vision. 

A single, overarching vision aligns staff and leadership around the ultimate goal of the work, is an essential tool for making decisions about programs and initiatives, and tells audiences what the mission leads up to—the future you’re working towards.

That’s a fair bit of pressure to put on one sentence. 

We define a vision as a concept or idea of how the world should be and a vision statement as the expression of that idea. Vision statements paint a picture of the future, and should be idealistic and motivating.

Over the course of our work helping nonprofits define and express their visions, we’ve noticed that at times, it can be tricky to hone in on the scope. Is it an aspiration for the world? For a certain sector? Or something else entirely?

These are the four different directions we typically see nonprofit visions take.

For the world

Whether it’s the world, a country, or some other big geographic area, this is the most traditional—and audacious—vision statement scope. Some nonprofits want to project a realistic and pragmatic personality, while others strive to lean into their bold side. (This style of vision statement achieves the latter.)

We had the opportunity to work with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal and educational organization using the law as a positive force for social change, on refining their vision statement.

We fight for a world without oppression—where people use their power to achieve justice and guarantee the rights of all.

Using their brand strategy as a guide, we landed on the above statement to play up their tough and impassioned personality traits. Leading with the world also points to their ethos about change: in order to achieve lasting justice for all, oppressive systems must be dismantled and rebuilt so that everyone has power they deserve. If you’re curious, you can read about the rest of our rebranding work with the Center for Constitutional Rights in our case study here.

A big vision statement is easy to understand and rally behind, but can feel intimidating to live up to. If you pursue a vision for the world, be sure to your staff and board are equipped to talk about what it means and explain how your organization’s work is getting us there.

For people

If people are at the core of your nonprofit’s mission, consider leading with them in your vision statement. A statement that focuses on individuals evokes our common humanity and declares that those closest to your mission are the changemakers who will ultimately make a difference.

We helped NYC FIRST, a STEM education organization based in New York City, develop their overarching vision statement.

We envision a future where every young person has access to rigorous and inspiring STEM education and succeeds academically and in their career.

Rather than limit the scope of their vision statement to a geographic area, we determined that it would be more powerful to frame their ultimate aspiration in terms of the young people they work with every day. A vision that is oriented around people speaks to systemic change, but less directly than a statement for the world or society.

One challenge that may come with defining your nonprofit’s vision statement around people is that it could begin to sound like your mission. We recommend reviewing your vision, mission, and values statements together to ensure that language updates you make to one work well with the rest.

For the field

Here’s where the scope starts to narrow. By field, we mean the specific area in which a nonprofit works—health, arts and culture, education, youth services, etc. Some organizations aim to reach a certain audience within their field in a certain way. This style of vision statement can help them do that.

A vision for the field may be the most viable for a business-to-business (or nonprofit-to-nonprofit) organization, particularly for nonprofits that have created a successful model or approach that they believe can benefit their entire sector or act as an intermediary.

The nation’s largest charter school network, KIPP, currently has a vision statement around public education. 

One day, all public schools will help children develop the knowledge, skills, character, and habits necessary to achieve their dreams while making the world a better place.

By framing their vision around the future of the public education sector, KIPP created a statement that resonates with specific audience groups connected to their work—school administrators and teachers. 

There’s a fine line between a vision statement for the sector and a vision statement for people. If your nonprofit is oscillating between the two, we suggest framing your statement in terms of the people central to your work. It will feel more motivating to audiences who are unfamiliar with you.

For the future of your nonprofit

On the spectrum of vision statement scopes, this is the smallest. A vision for the future of your nonprofit is the most organization-centric and may be the least compelling to outside audiences. By and large, we don’t recommend pursuing this form of expression.

That’s because it’s more of an internal idea, something an organization will want to include in its long-term strategic plans and grant proposals, but not showcase publicly. After all, nonprofits shouldn’t exist for their own gain, but to tangibly benefit people. That being said, some nonprofits—especially those striving to be known for exemplary work—do choose to express their vision in an organization-centric manner.

The Wisconsin branch of Mayo Clinic, a medical care provider, has a vision statement that looks inward.

Mayo Clinic will provide an unparalleled experience as the most trusted partner for health care.

Mayo Clinic’s vision statement reinforces its standards for high-quality care and likely resonates with each of their audience groups differently, based on their relationship to the organization.

For patients and their loved ones, it might evoke confidence and reliability. They know they’re getting the best health care possible. For staff, it serves as a statement to live up to. They should strive to do their best work every day to make this vision a reality. 

This style of vision statement comes with more obstacles than benefits. It’s insular, lacks emotion, and makes it tough for unfamiliar audiences to connect with. If your nonprofit is looking to get new people involved in your work, we recommend pursuing a vision for the world or for people.

We hope these four scopes help you identify the best path forward for the expression of your organization’s vision. If you’re struggling to choose the right words for your vision—or any other piece of your nonprofit’s messaging platform—contact us. We’d love to help.