Vision without action is merely a dream.
Action without vision just passes the time.
Vision with action can change the world.
– Joel A. Barker
If your nonprofit achieved all of its goals, what would that look like? What kind of world would be created as a result?
Answers to these questions will form the foundations for what will ultimately become your nonprofit vision statement.
A vision statement is the anchor point of any nonprofit strategic plan. It outlines what a nonprofit organization would like to ultimately accomplish and gives it purpose.
Your nonprofit vision statement is a short phrase describing the future you are ultimately working towards (i.e. your final destination or desired end state). It draws a picture of what the world will look like once your organization’s mission is fulfilled.
Note that a vision statement is not the same thing as a vision, though the two are closely related. A vision is a shared belief about the future your nonprofit can create if it achieves all its goals. A vision statement is a concise, clear, well-articulated set of words that describe your organization’s vision to internal and external stakeholders.
A good vision statement should be short, simple, specific to your nonprofit, and should also have some ambition. The statement should not take into consideration future funding, obstacles of any kind, or the present availability of resources.
This comprehensive guide will take you through the entire process of writing a good vision statement, with examples and resources to help along the way.
- The Difference Between Mission, Vision, Values, Goals, and Strategies
- Why Crafting a Nonprofit Vision Statement Matters
- Top Tips for Writing a Great Vision Statement
- 10-Step Guide to Creating a Nonprofit Vision Statement
- Examples of Great Vision Statements
- Wait… Before You Go!
The Difference Between Mission, Vision, Values, Goals, and Strategies
Mission and vision statements capture the essence of your nonprofit organization.
Sometimes, a nonprofit mission statement, vision statement, values, and goals can get mixed up. Let’s see how they are different.
Your vision is the future you intend to create. It’s how you’re going to change the world.
Essentially, your vision is the destination.
A good vision statement answers the following questions:
- What is the “big, hairy, audacious”, the impact you want to make on the world?
- How will the world look once you’re successful?
Vision statements are usually prefaced with the phrases “A world where…” or “We exist so that…”
Your mission is the journey towards your vision. It’s your core work.
A good mission statement answers the following questions:
- What are you going to do to work towards making your vision a reality?
- How are you going to do it?
Put another way, your mission is a short, direct, and compelling way to state your theory of change or the core strategy for your organization. It provides a link between your everyday goals, and activities and what you hope to achieve long-term.
A mission statement should be more tangible than a vision statement, have a shorter lifespan, and evolve more frequently.
Your values are the guiding principles for which you stand. They are the ideals you refuse to compromise as you conduct your mission in pursuit of your vision.
Nonprofit organizational values are the highest values that guide your organization’s actions, unite your employees, and define your brand.
They are ideally set as part of strategic planning when an organization is just being set up (alongside mission and vision statements).
Your goals are the handful of achievements towards which you will work over the next one to five years.
Often, they are outlined in your business plan. They’re an essential planning tool, as they provide the focus for your efforts and you can use them to measure results.
Set specific, realistic goals for your organization that will help you improve, grow and accomplish your mission.
Your strategies are the broad courses of action you will take to achieve your goals.
Strategies typically include a clear description of what your organization is going to do to achieve your targets. They’re usually very specific and focused.
Goals and strategies work together in order to help you achieve your mission and vision. Strategies are often reviewed quite regularly to see if they’re paying off.
Why Crafting a Nonprofit Vision Statement Matters
1. It allows everyone to work towards a common ideal.
Essentially, an effective nonprofit vision statement ensures that you and your staff, board members, donors, program participants, volunteers, and other supporters are working toward the same shared ideals.
A vision statement enables everyone in your nonprofit to drive forward with the same destination in mind.
A good nonprofit vision statement is also a ‘limiter’, helping rule out certain opportunities that do not ultimately contribute to the organizational vision.
2. It inspires and motivates.
In addition to creating some clarity, great vision statements also inspire and motivate. If you nail your vision statement, your stakeholders will be clear about your organization’s raison d’être and inspired to advance your aims.
Vision statements help everyone who has a stake in your nonprofit see and feel like they’re working towards something greater than themselves, that there’s a higher meaning to their (sometimes tedious) everyday tasks.
The big “why” also motivates Gen Y and Z in the workplace. Many of us in the modern workforce are seeking a purpose and a meaning behind the work that we do. A well-articulated vision statement will help you attract and retain great talent.
3. It’s the pinnacle.
Vision statements fill a vital need for a nonprofit organization. For instance, when setting a broader strategic plan for the organization, one can get bogged down in the day-to-day details of running an organization. The vision statement helps you zoom out and think big picture, allowing you to more easily set long-term goals.
Vision statements are the pinnacle of the funnel, meaning that ideally, everything else – your goals, strategies, and tactics, should be contributing towards the vision.
4. It helps your donors feel like heroes.
People don’t want to give money away with a sense of sadness, guilt, and pity. They want to invest in bold, exciting, and inspiring ventures. And, donors love to give to exciting and audacious dreams. They find meaning in helping change and save lives.
Your donors want to know: Why should I give to this cause? Why this organization? Why now? And why me? Your vision statement addresses the core reasons that drive your donors into giving.
Top Tips for Writing a Great Vision Statement
1. Make it clear.
Use simple and concrete language (8th-grade reading level).
Avoid elaborate words and lots of buzzwords and jargon. For example, saying you will ‘maximize beneficiaries benefit’ doesn’t actually mean anything unless you specify what that actually looks like.
Create a statement that’s clear and focused enough to help shape future decision making. At the same time, a vision statement should still be general enough to encompass changing possibilities.
Finally, a vision statement shouldn’t be so abstract and lofty as to never be attainable.
2. Make it concise.
Your vision statement should ideally be short and to-the-point. Some suggest to:
- Keep it to 5-14 words (20 maximum).
- Avoid words of more than 12 letters or 4 syllables.
- Use no more than a 1-word string.
Or to put it simply, write two sentences at an absolute maximum. It’s fine to expand on your vision statement with more detail, but what you write should be memorable.
The key to a concise vision statement is having a clear focus on the need your nonprofit will serve, or the problem it will address. You can pull ideas from your mission statement if you wish, but be careful to not mix them up too much.
3. Make it inspiring.
Vision statements are, in a way, dreams encapsulated into words. So, they shouldn’t be too descriptive, professional, or dry.
Vision statements, when harnessed properly, can be powerful inspirational forces that can motivate everyone involved with your organization’s work to make that dream a reality.
Your vision represents a dream that’s beyond what you think is possible. It represents the mountaintop your organization is striving to reach. This is why great vision statements are audacious!
A great nonprofit vision statement is ambitious enough to be exciting but not too ambitious that it seems unachievable.
Pro tip: You can choose to time-frame your vision. This works for some nonprofits and doesn’t for some. Time-framing can add the often desirable urgency to the vision, but there can be consequences to the staff morale, for example, if it’s not achieved within the specified time-frame.
4. Make it unique.
Avoid generic vision statements (e.g. “A world where people are well”). While this can sometimes be hard to do with only a sentence or two, try to be specific and describe a unique outcome that only you can provide.
While your vision statement needs to be audacious and inspiring, it should also build on what you’ve already established: your organization’s history, supporter base, strengths, unique capabilities, resources, and assets.
Pro tip: With their vision statements, some nonprofits project a realistic and pragmatic personality, while others strive to lean into their bold side. A more pragmatic vision that is oriented around people could still speak to systemic change, but less directly than a statement for the world or society. It’s important to choose the style that works for your nonprofit. Read Big Duck’s article on 4 levels of nonprofit vision statements.
Facilitating the visioning process can be confusing. To make it easier, read the following step-by-step guide.
10-Step Guide to Creating a Nonprofit Vision Statement
Whether your nonprofit is creating its first vision statement, needs to rework its vision statement to better reflect current strategic direction, or simply needs to better articulate a vision that already exists, here’s how to get started developing a nonprofit vision statement to guide your future:
- Go back to your strategic planning.
- Map out the process.
- Think of the right questions.
- Listen to your community.
- Brainstorm and brainstorm.
- Execute the visualization exercise.
- Break out and consolidate.
- Work on the first draft.
- Come up with a final draft.
- Test and launch.
Step 1: Go back to your strategic planning.
A vision is ideally born as part of a strategic planning process when an organization is just being set up (alongside a mission statement, values, and goals).Don’t make the mistake of trying to shape your vision statement before your organization is clear about its mission and vision on a more conceptual level.
If you haven’t gone through mission and vision development already, now is the time.
Then, you’ll have something to work with when formulating a vision statement.
If you’ve already gone through a solid mission and vision development process, revisit the material before diving into formulating a vision statement.
Step 2: Map out the process.
To start the process:
- Get very clear on why you’ve decided to work on your vision statement.
- Outline a clear project objective.
- List the exact steps you’ll need to take to accomplish the objective.
- Scope out how much time that would take.
- Note who would need to be involved.
- Triple check the process is recorded and actionable. It should be crystal clear how to proceed, when, and with whom.
Often, nonprofit leaders task marketing and communications staff with finding the right language to express the organization’s vision alone. However, for a vision statement to be truly powerful, the vision statement development should be a collaborative process that involves not just leadership and communications staff, but rather a wide array of other internal and external stakeholders.
Consider conducting interviews or focus groups with your program participants, with your volunteers, donors, board members, and anyone else who has a stake in the future your organization is working to create.
Engaging diverse internal and external stakeholders is more time-consuming than simply having the three people from Comms come up with ‘something’, but it’s well worth it for something that encapsulates what your nonprofit is hoping to achieve in the world.
The process you choose will depend on the size and structure of your organization, but you should aim for it to be comprehensive and realistic.
Step 3: Think of the right questions
Asking the right questions will help you uncover what you need in order to craft a great vision statement.
Here are some questions you might want to ask
- What would an ideal news headline regarding our organization read 20 years from now?
- What is our dream/vision for our community?
- If we were successful, what would the world look like for us and our clients?
- What would we like to see change?
- What kind of community (or program, policy, school, neighborhood, etc.) do we want to create?
Step 4: Listen to your community
For a vision statement to be sound, it’s especially important that it’s well-grounded in community beliefs and values. Awareness of the important issues in your community and amongst your beneficiaries is critical for the development of a strong, effective, and enduring vision statement.
Take the questions from Step 3 and use them to define the issue(s) that matter most to people in your community.
There are many different ways you can gather this information, some of them are:
- Listening sessions: Gather people from throughout the community to talk about what is important to them. Have a facilitator from your nonprofit lead a discussion of what people perceive to be the community’s strengths and problems, and what people wish the community was like.
- Focus groups: Focus groups are similar to listening sessions, but they are smaller and more intimate. For example, the group members are generally about the same age, are of the same ethnic group, or have another common identity and/or experience.
- Interviews: Interviews are conversations with people in leadership and service positions, including such individuals as local politicians, or other relevant individuals, about what problems or needs they believe exist in your community. Some one-on-one time with community leaders can also strengthen your knowledge, so you don’t waste time reinventing the wheel.
Someone typically records these meetings, and a transcript of what is said provides a basis for subsequent steps of the visioning process.
Pro tip: Once you have a rough vision statement, you might revisit the focus group for feedback and strengthen it.
Pro tip: It’s important to realize that these different ways of gathering information from your community are not mutually exclusive. In fact, if you have the resources, it is recommended to do all of them.
Step 5: Brainstorm and brainstorm.
Now that you have gathered a lot of data, take the time to organize it. Highlight key themes and patterns that came up in your conversations with your beneficiaries and the rest of the community.
Organize the information into something digestible for your team to review before brainstorming. These can take many forms, from presentations to videos to reports.
Note: Alternatively, you might want your team to brainstorm first without reviewing the input, so that the brainstorming is less leading and freer, at least at the start.
Now is the time to brainstorm internally, amongst your board, staff, and volunteers.
How you brainstorm is up to you. Developing a vision statement through brainstorming is quite culture-specific. For example, you might use methods that are highly analytical and rational or methods that are highly creative and divergent.
Taking into account your organizational culture, decide how you might like to arrive at an organizational vision.
If you need a simple process, choose a few hours and organize small groups to work together answering questions from Step 3. Then, compile all of that data and start coming up with a vision statement.
However, if you’d like to make the process more elaborate and comprehensive, you might also want to consider doing a visualization exercise (read Step 6).
Pro tip 1: A retreat setting is usually conducive to visioning exercises. Participants could be asked to imagine the sections of the annual report in 30 years. What has the organization accomplished in the year 20XX? Small groups could brainstorm separately and write down all ideas and suggestions the teams come up with. Afterward, a facilitator works with the entire group and helps transform the ideas into workable statements.
Pro tip 2: Here are some brainstorming tips for you.
Step 6: Execute visualization exercise.
Visualization exercises can get your group’s wheels turning and can take the pressure off of coming up with a vision statement out of thin air.
The visualization exercise should present the participants with a scenario in which they can visualize the organization as successful, but without the facilitators dictating what the success looks like.
Here’s a visualization exercise developed by Michael Wilkinson of Leadership strategies:
Imagine that you look up from your desk and you find yourself in an auditorium in which someone is speaking and announcing an award. You realize that the person speaking is _____________ and the award is the _______________ which goes to the organization which has __________________. The presenter says, ‘At no time in the history of the award until now have the judges been in the unanimous agreement of the organization most deserving of this award. And this year the award goes to (this organization).’ There is a standing ovation, as people get out of their chairs to applaud. When the applause dies down, the presenter goes on to list all the accomplishments that made this organization deserving. Listen to what the presenter is saying (brief silence) Fill it in…what was it that the organization accomplished? (brief silence).
Read through the full visioning exercise here.
Participants should be grouped but should write down answers and notes individually to start with.
All the ideas are then recorded on a flipchart, whiteboard, or post-its.
At this stage, there is no discussion among the participants, only questions of clarification if necessary. All ideas are welcomed, without value or judgment.
Step 7: Break out and consolidate.
In this step, participants are invited to share, discuss with others, and consolidate their ideas. Ask each group to end up with one or a few positive, declarative one-sentence statements that will then be shared with the rest of the participants (other groups).
Whether the groups only worked with questions or you also organized the visioning exercise, participants should start by sharing their answers and ideas with the rest of their group. Then, the discussion should be encouraged amongst the group members. Instruct the groups to find the areas of consensus, and identify any areas of disagreement. Everyone should focus on the areas of some consensus.
If it suits your organizational culture, you could also encourage the groups to draw, create collages, draw symbols, and more.
Once the smaller groups have reached some consensus and come up with their statements, proceed to construct a common vision among all the participants. Ask each group to report to plenary the contents of its group discussion and to present any drawings/symbols.
Encourage the merging of the group visions into a common statement summarizing the vision for the organization.
This statement can, at this stage, be longer than ideal or you might even have a few of them. That’s okay. This can be refined in the next step.
Pro tip 1: Consider having someone external conduct this session. It can be helpful to have someone without a stake in the future organizational design.
Pro tip 2: Be alert to statements that may have cultural, ethnic, or even gender roots. The goal is not to find the majority opinion, but to arrive at a vision that reflects the thinking of the diverse groups in your community.
Step 8: Work on the first draft.
This process needs one person — ideally a founder or a long-standing member of the leadership team, someone with your organization in their gut — to be an all-absorbing sponge and to take time out alone to reflect and apply a bit of creativity.
This really is a process of one person staring at a bunch of sentences for a while until something clicks. The distilling and drafting process will not be easily done by multiple people, although some organizations find success by appointing a team/committee.
Make sure this work is done within a reasonable time frame and that the results are reported back quickly to the rest of the team.
Get any last feedback before proceeding to work on the final draft.
Step 9: Come up with a final draft.
Get wordsmithing help in order to come up with a final draft. While vision statements are short and simple, great writing is a skill that’s difficult to master — especially when so much needs to be consolidated in one or two sentences.
You may need to go through this process a few times — draft, meet, discuss, modify, redraft, and repeat — before landing on an interpretation that everyone can stand behind.
When you have your final version nailed, pause your efforts and come back to it a bit later. Evaluate if it adequately describes the desired outcome and inspires you on the same level as when you left off.
These iterations will ensure a lasting quality to your vision because as with all things that are built to last, your vision statement will typically undergo only rare and subtle revisions during the existence of your organization.
Step 10: Test and launch.
Once you have developed your vision statement, your next step might be to learn what community members think of it before you use the statement publicly.
To do this, you could talk to the same community leaders or focus group members you spoke to originally. This can help you ensure that they don’t find the statements offensive in any way. And you will also ensure that community members agree that the statements together capture the spirit of what they believe and desire.
A vision statement cannot possibly perfectly resonate with hundreds or thousands of people. It’s important, however, that nothing crucial has been omitted and that everyone can broadly find themselves in the vision statement.
It’s advisable to create a document (or a blog post if you want to make the details of your vision public) that goes more in detail. Be transparent about the process. Let people know why the final vision statement looks the way it does.
Then… it’s time to celebrate!
Developing a vision statement is a huge step for your organization and it’s worth celebrating. You might even want to organize a party or an event!
Try to spread your vision statement by adding it to stationery, t-shirts, bookmarks, or other small items, and then give those away.
You might also want to use it on your website, write a blog article, create a video, paint it on a wall…
…and so on.
This is the time to get creative!
Pro tip: If you want to take your vision to the next level, we recommend not only creating a written vision statement but also try to paint a more detailed, vivid picture of your future in the form of an image collage, presentation, or organizational manual.
Examples of Great Vision Statements
Callisto is a nonprofit that empowers survivors of sexual assault by providing technology to combat it, report it, and get help. Their vision statement says:
“Our vision is a world where sexual assault is rare and survivors are supported.”
Habitat for Humanity
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit housing organization working to empower people in the world’s poorest communities to overcome the chronic lack of decent housing. Their vision is:
“A world where everyone has a place to live”.
The Alzheimer’s Association is the leading voluntary health organization in Alzheimer’s care, support, and research. They lead the way to end Alzheimer’s and all other dementia with global research, quality care, and support. Their vision is statement is:
“A world without Alzheimer’s and all other dementia”.
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
The NMSS helps people affected by Multiple Sclerosis (MS) so that they can live their best lives as they stop MS in its tracks, restore what has been lost, and end MS forever. Their vision statement is simple:
“A world free of MS”.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is a global environmental nonprofit working to create a world where people and nature can thrive. Their vision statement says:
“Our vision is a world where the diversity of life thrives, and people act to conserve nature for its own sake and its ability to fulfill our needs and enrich our lives.”
The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States is a nonprofit veterans service organization comprised of eligible veterans and military service members from the active, guard, and reserve forces. Their vision statement reads:
“Ensure that veterans are respected for their service, always receive their earned entitlements, and are recognized for the sacrifices they and their loved ones have made on behalf of this great country.”
Cleveland Clinic is a nonprofit multispecialty academic medical center that integrates clinical and hospital care with research and education. Their vision statement says:
“Our vision for Cleveland Clinic is to be the best place for care anywhere and the best place to work in healthcare.”
NYC First runs mentor-based robotics leagues and STEM programs across New York City. They make high-quality education accessible so all young people can become STEM leaders. Their vision statement says:
“We envision a future where every young person has access to rigorous and inspiring STEM education and succeeds academically and in their career”.
Center for Constitutional Rights
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Their vision statement says:
“Center for Constitutional Rights fights for a world without oppression—where people use their power to achieve justice and guarantee the rights of all”.
Here are more nonprofit vision statement examples.
Pro tip: Sometimes, it’s okay to use the term “mission statement” externally if that makes more sense to your audience. Internally, however, you need to clearly define and separate your mission from your vision statement.
Wait… Before You Go!
You’ve crafted your vision statement. Good job!
But, how do you know your vision statement is effective and compelling?
Ask yourself these seven questions:
- Is our vision statement primarily composed of clear words people actually use and understand or is it primarily filled with jargon and buzzwords?
- When we tell a stranger our vision statement, can they remember it easily? Do they understand it? Do they find it inspiring?
- Is our vision statement one that could only describe our organization or could it apply to just about any organization?
- Does our vision statement sound like we talk inside our organization or does it sound as if a business consultant wrote it?
- Was our visioning process inclusive of every group that has a stake in our organization?
- Do we have a clear understanding of how our vision statement interacts with our mission, values, and strategic plan?
- Do we have a plan for how to bring our vision statement alive in our everyday work?
Over to You
Once you have your vision statement, relentlessly communicate it both internally and externally. Your vision statement won’t do any good if no one knows what it is.
Ideally, you’d also implement a strategic framework to help track progress in achieving the key aspects of your vision. Your framework should hold and track your goals, and break them down further into manageable pieces with initiatives and action items.
Although the visioning process can take some time – the benefits are worth it. Like your mission statement and your organizational values, your vision statement is part of the foundation your organization stands on.
Organizations with strong and lived visions, missions, and values usually perform better than those without.