Shared Wisdom for Successfully Leading Organizations

How to craft the vision of your non-profit organization

Compass points to word "Vision"

When Franca Gucciardi accepted her first CEO position at the Loran Scholars Foundation she quickly realized the immensity of the task ahead of her and contacted her mentor, Alan Broadbent. What followed was a series of conversations, and a process of learning to ask (and then answer!) the right questions. You’re It! is mentorship in book form, the collected wisdom of two experienced CEOs — a practical and accessible guide to leading an organization. It’s everything you wanted to know about being a CEO but were afraid to ask.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three, “Crafting the vision.” To purchase a copy of You’re It!, click here.

Crafting the vision

If you are leading an organization, you probably believe in its work or mission. Whether it is designing software, awarding scholarships, providing shelter to homeless people, or protecting the environment, you are clear on what the organization’s purpose is. Often, the factors that will help the organization achieve that goal are less obvious. In other words, what is the core business for the organization? As a new CEO, you must take some time to figure this out. If you don’t, your operations can go spinning out in all directions very quickly. Defining your core business is not always simple, but once articulated, it results in a clear vision.

We are using the term “vision” in a very different way than people are accustomed to using it. For most organizations, a vision is a lofty, often unattainable statement. In fact, it has become de rigueur for organizations to plan weekend-long board and staff retreats and spend resources coming up with lofty visions such as “eradicating poverty” or “developing a sustainable world.” In addition, vision statements are often followed by an equally generic list of values such as “we will act with honesty,” “we will operate at the highest ethical standards,” “we will be entrepreneurial.” The warning note with this approach is that it can lead to non-specific or unrealistic statements that leave management with little guide for decision-making or accountability.

For us, “vision” refers to a set of practical statements that identify the organization’s core business and are used to guide the strategic decisions of the organization. Each individual statement identifies a key driver of the organization’s work. These statements are practical enough that management and board could have a healthy debate on whether they have identified the right ones. These drivers collectively provide a clear picture of what you, as a leader, need to focus on to ensure the success of your organization. Taking the time to define the key drivers early on in the job is an indispensable first step.

Part A. The value of the key drivers: Organizational examples

Two or three key drivers are at the root of most organizations’ work. A good manager must be able to identify them and state them simply and concretely.

Clearly articulated drivers will provide leaders with a solid way of testing whether new ideas fit the purpose of the organization. Since not everything is equally important, these drivers will help you to focus on the priorities of the organization. In a profit-making organization, the drivers must identify what makes the business more profitable and distinctive in the marketplace.

For a non-profit organization, articulating the drivers can at times be a little trickier. When you manage an organization based on the generosity of donors or government resources, for example, it can be quite easy to start to let the funding sources guide the business decisions and divert the mission of the organization. It becomes about “what can we get money to do?” as opposed to “what do we need to do?” A new CEO could suddenly find that the organization is doing all kinds of things it should not be doing. Teasing out what is core to the work may at times be a matter of survival.

FRANCA: I faced a critical decision in my first few months on the job with the Loran Scholars Foundation with regard to budget cuts. The organization was facing a deficit, and we needed to make tough cuts. I needed to have a clear idea of what was core to our work. I identified three key drivers: a selection system aimed at finding unconventional students with potential for leadership; a stewardship program that provides scholars with opportunities to realize this potential; and a fundraising program that ensures renewed and diversified revenue sources. Once I had done that, it became obvious that we could not afford to reduce the travel budget to visit regional committees in any meaningful way as our regional selection system is a key driver. But I could reduce costs by outsourcing our bookkeeping, our tech support, some of our communications activities, and our events planning.

Part B. Deciding on the key drivers

Before drafting the key drivers, of course, you want to make sure you have a comprehensive understanding of the organization. Start by breaking down the work and identifying the various programs, processes, and products of the organization. The next step is to look at the full picture and figure out what the business couldn’t do without by separating the things you need to have to run the business from the nice to have. This is a subtle but essential difference that requires vigorous testing. You are prioritizing the organization’s needs.

The key roadblock in articulating the drivers is often one’s own resistance to making decisions for fear of potential negative consequences. Figure out what is behind the resistance. For example, is a board director or a donor connected to the thing that you know needs to change? Is a popular or powerful staff member running a part of the operation that may be expendable? Make plans that will minimize the negative reactions, as noted previously, but don’t let this stop you from being clear on what your core business is.

ALAN: I joined the board of a venerable national organization in the mid-90s and realized that the institute had an extensive news-clipping service. It was something they had been doing for the last seventy years, and they had developed quite an extensive clippings library. In fact, it was the best in the country. For an organization with limited resources in the Internet age with its free, accessible media, it was quite apparent to me that this was an area that needed to change. The problem was that there was a woman who had been running this service for the last twenty years, and no one wanted to eliminate her position. It took three years to finally stop this practice. I remember I finally spoke with her and asked how she would feel if we gave her a pension that was equivalent to working at the institute for another three years. She said she would take it in a minute.

Part C. Organizing the work around the drivers

Once you have the drivers clearly articulated, start to embed them into all aspects of the organization. A good next step is to break down the budget in terms of these drivers to see what resources are going into each major task. This provides a good tool for evaluating the current situation and ensures that the appropriate resources are marshalled in support of the drivers, rather than spread thinly and evenly everywhere. As a leader where are you focusing your time and that of your team? What resources are being poorly spent? How many resources are you allocating to the top drivers of the organization?

After you have broken down what the organization is currently doing, the next step is to set goals for improving performance on the drivers. What needs to change to make a greater impact? What works perfectly and should not be changed? Who needs to be involved to achieve the goals? What needs to happen first? What team do you need? Who are the most vital new recruits? For example, depending on the organization, it might be the chief information officer or chief technology officer or it could be front line workers or nurses.

By letting the drivers guide the goal setting process, work plans evolve quite naturally, and they form concrete strategic and business plans for the organization whose progress and activities will be quite straightforward to measure. That said, even if an idea sounds like it fits with your drivers, it must still be tested.

In short, the drivers make the entire organization more manageable and understandable. They take the ambiguity out of strategic decision-making and provide guidance to the staff on their daily activities, but they cannot be seen as static. As CEO it is your job to keep yourself up to date and to be sensitive to any changes in your market or operating environment. Although you might rely on key people to help you, such as the fundraiser to let you know of changes in the fundraising community, or your operations or finance person to let you know of any shifts in the regulatory environment, as CEO you are ultimately responsible to make sure the organization is responding adequately and in a timely fashion.


The CEO should always be aware of the key drivers: their state of play and how they are operating in the larger context. Conditions can and will change, and you need to be ready to adjust what you do and how you do it. The organization and its leadership should have enough flexibility to adapt and adjust. It is not appropriate to say that the current business plan or the current budget does not allow you to look at something, or that you’ll wait until next year. Change the plans or the budget when you need to change them. If there is a need to reconsider the drivers, don’t wait or it might be too late.

Tips and resources

  1. Peter Drucker’s Managing the Non-profit Organization: Principles and Practices (HarperBusiness, 1992) is a must-read classic. It is written on the premise that non-profits are more complex to manage because they don’t have the single purpose of profit. It will help you think through what your organization’s purpose is and how important it is to organize the work around it.
  2. Nick Saul’s chapter “Reimagining Your Organization” in Five Good Ideas: Practical Strategies for Non-Profit Success (Coach House Books, 2011) tells the story of how he reimagined The Stop from a food bank to an organization with a more comprehensive and successful approach to food security. He provides practical advice on what matters the most when you lead these types of changes.
  3. Choose your tools. There are many tools that will help you work through your thoughts and explore possibilities as you craft your vision. Depending on how you work best, you might consider online mind mapping software such as MindMeister, or you may prefer a flipchart with multicoloured markers. Either way, exploring possibilities from different angles will only enrich your vision.