Whose vision? Why a community-centered process should proceed strategy and brand
The late Rose Braz, a leader in the movement for prison abolition, once said, “A prerequisite to seeking any social change is the naming of it. In other words, even though the goal we seek may be far away unless we name it and fight for it today, it will never come.” Rose’s words capture the power of forming and communicating a bold vision. But, who gets to shape the vision? What kind of process best fosters a vision? And how should a vision actually be used? These questions get to the heart of the relationships, intersections, and sometimes tensions at play between the work of strategic planning and branding.
At Big Duck, we define vision as a concept or idea of how the world should be, and a vision statement as the written expression of that idea. Vision statements paint a picture of the future, and should be idealistic and motivating to those involved in a nonprofit’s work. As my colleague Lila Tublin shared recently in, The 4 levels of nonprofit vision statements, “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.” Whether your nonprofit’s vision is prison abolition, ending the cycle of domestic violence, or the cure of a rare disease, the work involved in formulating that vision can be a meaningful process unto itself. The concept that emerges from that process can be transformative in how nonprofits think about their work.
Well before writing a sharp, pithy statement, consider who contributes to the vision. In other words, whose ideas and experiences will be elevated to form the north star of your organization’s work? For example, will you formulate your vision based on the ideas of established experts in the field? Longtime staff members who have worked tirelessly on the mission? Or will you start with those with lived experiences tied to your mission? These decisions determine whether your vision is an equitable and community-centered one. My colleague Hannah Thomas wrote in her blog post, Messaging considerations for a movement, “shared purpose is not something that you discover at all, because you can’t discover what already exists. Community should be at the root of your messaging. That means making sure community members’ voices are centered.”
Start your visioning process by talking to the community members who are most deeply impacted by the problem your organization is trying to solve and invite them to share their vision for the future. For example, Big Duck worked with a national network of charter schools that has a public commitment to becoming an anti-racist organization. We partnered to create a new vision and mission for the organization and conducted focus groups to hear their community’s hopes, aspirations, and needs for the future of their schools. Together, we set a commitment to center and elevate the voices of students, families, and alumni because we acknowledged that they are the individuals most directly impacted by the school’s vision and mission. This meant that we actively prioritized their ideas over those of stakeholders with established and formalized positions of power in the organization. This can be challenging, especially when there are disagreements in the direction of the vision, but if the commitment is made up front it can help everyone stay on the same page.
By centering the experiences’ of individuals most impacted by the problem your organization seeks to solve, rather than the voices of leadership, staff, Board members and donors, you’ve taken a meaningful step toward ensuring your vision is community-centered and equitable. (For more resources to support you in conducting an equitable research process as part of your visioning process, check out this post.)
How vision shapes strategy
An equitable, community-centered vision can be a critical component to a nonprofit’s strategy.. With a unified idea about the ultimate change your community wants to see, you have a solid foundation for revisiting or crafting your organization’s mission, which expresses what your nonprofit actually does. It’s through alignment and understanding around those ideas that programmatic, operational, staffing, communications, and fundraising priorities should emerge. Without a community-centered process, nonprofit leaders risk spending valuable time and resources solving problems that they think they should fix, but that may not align with what their community actually needs most.
Big Duck worked with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal advocacy organization, on their vision statement, which became: We fight for a world without oppression—where people use their power to achieve justice and guarantee the rights of all. Their ethos of change is built into this vision statement—in order to create a world free of oppression, people must be mobilized to dismantle and reimagine unjust systems of power that are often perpetuated by the law. The vision directly influences the Center’s mission and thus their programmatic and operational priorities. Their mission statement is: Center for Constitutional Rights stands with social justice movements and communities under threat—fusing litigation, advocacy, and narrative shifting to dismantle systems of oppression regardless of the risk. This mission makes sense in the context of the vision: it articulates that they focus their legal efforts on working as a partner to social justice movements and communities under threat to break down systems of oppression and create durable change. Together, the vision and mission drive the Center’s strategic priorities—from the types of cases they take on to the movement leaders and communities with whom they build relationships.
Shaping the process
Every nonprofit vision would benefit from centering the aspirations of community members most impacted by its work. Your nonprofit’s vision should be your community’s vision—and if there’s a disconnect there, there’s likely a good argument for some significant organizational reimagining. This work can happen under the umbrella of a strategic planning exercise, a branding project, or as a dedicated community research and listening project.
The potential risk of fitting a visioning exercise into a strategic planning process is the common desire to jump to strategies, tactics, and activities in a strategic plan, without deeply stepping back to question the foundational ideas underlying the organization. Additionally, without branding work attached to it, nonprofits run the risk of creating a vision that is conceptually accurate but that leaves room for improvement when it comes to external communications. Meanwhile, the potential risk of fitting a visioning process into a branding process is that without adequate time and ability to do the deep work and listening to get to the concept of the vision—you jump right into developing a powerful statement for external consumption but that doesn’t represent the right idea and thus creates strategic misalignment. Even the process of taking a vision and editing it into a vision statement poses a risk—without careful attention, a single word choice could radically change the meaning behind an idea. The practical and most effective solution might be some hybridization or integration of the processes mentioned above. Regardless, ensuring the community is at the center of the process should be a given and well worth the time and investment doing so requires to create more relevant, impactful results.