As we are about to enter 2010, and the dawn of a new decade, my thoughts go back to the early 1990s. I had just completed graduate school and went to work in the social sector and was hooked. I loved it. I loved that every morning I woke up and did something good for the community. Times were, in some ways, a lot easier then. If you had a strong mission and passion, and committed leadership there were people and organizations that would want to support you. The economy was solid, there was an abundance of corporate philanthropy and a number of new foundations entering our community.
Today our world is much different. The proliferation of new nonprofits, significant rise of need, and weakened economy have required supporters to demand impact; to know how their contributions have a real return on investment. It is no longer enough to have a strong mission. Organizations need to prove their impact in their community.
In 1994 I went to work for a new organization, HandsOn Greater Phoenix created by a group of enthusiastic young people who wanted to create a new way of volunteering; a powerful, simple program to “make it easy for busy people to volunteer.” Our goal was to create an organization that provided rewarding “done in a day” volunteer projects that could take place on nights and weekends, wouldn’t require extensive training and would be completed in two-four hours.
It was simple. Truthfully we weren’t thinking about grand visions, logic models, or scalable impact; all we knew was that a few hours of volunteer service could make a difference. We knew the food boxes we packed and handed out were going to help a family have food for the next week’s school lunches; the meal we served to a homeless family was going to make sure they weren’t hungry for the next few hours; and that new books, a big cheerful mural and some new shelves at school library could brighten someone’s day.
Our first three years we were a fledging, though passionate and committed, organization. During this time we spend a lot of time focusing on our mission, “what we did.” After a few years we started to see something magnificent happen, that many of our community organizations and neighborhoods were benefiting from, and more importantly, benefiting, HandsOn Greater Phoenix volunteers. It started to add up into real impact. In a year 20,000 volunteers each giving two-four hours had an powerful affect. We got that our mission was how we created the experience; and our vision was to build an engaged, stronger, vibrant community.
I vividly remember one Board retreat where we were tasked to define our “primary customer.” There was a lively discussion about who our customer was, was it the “volunteer” or was it the “community?” We never resolved that debate. And, I admit, I am not convinced that need to have one “primary customer”. Our a-ah moment was “mobilizing volunteers” was the “how — the people we mobilized and the projects we developed. The community was the “why”; what mobilizing volunteers was going to create for nonprofit organizations, neighborhoods and our community. What was the vision we wanted to see. What would be possible if everyone was engaged? The dynamic process of creating a “vision statement” began.
One of my favorite community development experts is Hildy Gottlieb of the Community Driven Institute. She developed a process to create a vision statement that is so clear, so easy to understand, that had we found it earlier it would have saved us many hours of work. The mission is the how part; how we do what we do. The vision is what we want for our communities, how are they going to be better. Our mission is how we are going to help make sure that vision is a reality.
Hildy created a template that I think needs to be a part of every community organization’s planning process — she states that while it is powerful to talk about the work that we do, it is even more powerful to talk about it in the context of why we do it, we do it to make an outstanding place to live. This is the template. Simple and powerful.
Our vision is a community where ________. To bring this vision to reality, we do _______.
A vision is a compelling, powerful, easy-to-understand description of the future your you want for your community. A mission describes how you are going to create this vision. These are a few questions to help an organization create a vision statement:
What could be possible in five, ten, or twenty years for our community and how can we help make this happen?
What will our organization’s role be in creating that future?
How will we measure our success?
What would the headline be in the local newspaper if we were successful?
In between our mission and vision, is the measurable impact we make. In is important to focus on the process goals: how we do what we do; how we make sure our organization is strong and sustainable; and impact results; what is our impact on the community and how do we measure it. Don’t be afraid to reach for big impact goals. Here are some questions to help frame the discussion.
What are we passionate about? What is the community impact we want to create?
How are we making this impact happen?
How is our community, nation, world a better place because we exist?
How do we measure our impact? How could we be doing it better?
We realized that our “product” was: volunteers, project management expertise, and committed supporters who provided both financial resources and volunteers to make our projects happen. Then we started to measure our inputs/outputs. How many volunteers? How many hours? How many projects completed (the activities we were doing created the outcome)? The results were pretty astonishing.
In one neighborhood alone 30 houses were painted; 25 children at the local school had a Bookworm Buddy, and the students with Buddies saw reading levels increased an average of 2 levels; a community garden was planted, providing fresh produce for the residents and a community center and playground refurbished, creating a bright, fun, safe place for the children to play.
We had impact. Once we started to track everything we did, we saw how much we had accomplished. Our board was excited, we shared this with everyone, our funders, our volunteers, our community partners. With that sharing resources started to come. Once we started to measure what we were doing, and telling the stories of our volunteers, our agency partners and our community more started to come to us — more volunteers, more corporate partners, more strategic alliances and more funding. By telling the story of our “impact” we gained many new supporters. We were making a difference. When we started, we our goal was to mobilize 300 volunteers, today, you can’t drive down the street and not see the impact of more than 20,000 volunteers EVERY year. Mission Accomplished.
Call to Action: If you have stories to share about an organization who engaged in a successful vision, mission and impact process and have ideas to share, please post a comment below. Would love to hear your success stories!