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?