Monday, April 2, 2012

In search of (practical) Utopia

All this talk of vision and mission is nice, but it's too out there. It's not practical. It's a Utopia we'll never achieve...

It's a refrain many of us have heard at various times in our nonprofit boardrooms. We are told defining and advancing a more ideal future is our ultimate governance job, while we grapple with the here-and-now issues of program funding shortfalls, employee turnover and facilities that seem to be kept together with noting more than scotch tape and a prayer. Embracing a vision of a world that feels vastly out of reach in the midst of the "real-world" challenges of nonprofit leadership can be a pretty tough sell.

My "Nonprofit Management and Leadership" class has been immersed in essentially the same conversation this week, as we deepened our collective understanding of the roles of vision and mission. Early conversation leaned toward that all-too-common theme: all this talk about vision and mission is lovely, but it's just not practical.

Needless to say, I felt the need to share a different perspective. Here's how I responded:
The very essence of the nonprofit sector is the chance to make the world a better place. We may have different ways of defining"better." We may have different approaches to getting there and different parts of the journey for which we will take the lead. We may want to change or end things. We may want to make the world richer or more beautiful.
Yup, it's probably as utopian as it sounds. Most of us probably will never live to see the day when that ideal is reached (or reached as we want it to be). But we are drawn to the work, we are inspired to contribute, we live to lead, because we have that capacity to envision something better. That's the ultimate purpose of the strong visions and accompanying missions that we're talking about in this unit. That's why most of us are here. That's why most of us keep working. That's why lives are being changed, enhanced or saved.
It's important to not get too bogged down in the practical, or focused on the massive challenges that lie ahead, to the point of losing the bigger point: it's all about the vision and mission. Without them,we have nothing.
It's a challenge nonprofit leaders have faced for decades before my students and I engaged in this latest discussion. Unfortunately, it's a conversation nonprofit leaders probably will continue to have for decades to come.

In some respects, that's a good thing: it focuses our attention on why we're here and why we do the work. In others, it reminds us of a larger problem and a perpetual governance issue. For a variety of reasons - especially current organizational circumstances and our skewed collective understanding of the ultimate purposes of nonprofit governance - seeing stewardship of vision and mission as an extra and not the essence of why we lead.

How do you keep the board's collective eye on the horizon? What does it take to not only hold boards accountable for that stewardship responsibility but inspired and enthusiastic about doing so?


Kevin Monroe said...

Debra -- I must admit that I'm chuckling a bit as I ponder your post and question. It's a sad state of affairs when the social change sector feels that social change is too far of a reach and perhaps we should be more realistic and accepting of the dismal state of things.

Has it come to this that even the optimists among us are no longer optimistic but feel the need to conform and become realists. I don't think that's the answer. You got me thinking, perhaps we've lost something by talking about the sector as mission driven rather than vision driven. The mission exists to support and achieve the vision.

"How do you keep the board's collective eye on the horizon?" Maybe we should consider elevating the vision above the mission and frequently ask "does this move us closer to our future?" Print the vision on every board meeting agenda.

Writing more posts like this one is certainly an important contribution. Keep it up! Glad to have you as a friend and colleague!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

As usual, great minds...


I had my own vision "aha" moment in January 2010. Until that point, I'd understood, intellectually, the importance of having a vision. But I'd not gotten why it was so important. That clarity finally came to me.

You're absolutely right about the need to shift our collective thinking, as boards and nonprofit leaders, above the traditional mission focus (which can be a massive effort in itself for some), to our vision.

That's where the challenge comes in. I'm reminded of Lucy Marcus's "grounding and stargazing" post of last year. It can be delicate (and sometimes uncomfortable) balance, but we simply must encourage our boards to stretch toward their *vision* of the future. As I was reminded in class last week, it can be a tough sell - for reasons that are understandable but ultimately are unproductive if we are to succeed.