Magicians and Visionaries: A Lesson In Clarity

by Floyd Rumohr

I recently had the pleasure of working with two nonprofit organizations on developing vision, mission, and core values language — essential dimensions of the strategic planning process. One organization is well into its second decade and the other is a start-up.

Neither organization had a stated vision, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. It was hiding behind a lot of what felt like rhetorical slight-of-hand. When describing her work to potential donors, for example, one executive director saw “furrowed brows or eyes brimming with confusion” on listener’s faces. Grasping for the right words, she “would tumble into a monologue – bolting one sentence to the next like a flustered magician searching for the missing bunny in my hat.”

If executive leadership is struggling to describe what the organization does and where it’s going, what must the board, staff, and extended community be going through? The task before us was to make explicit what was implicit to organizational leadership so readers and listeners could viscerally connect and understand the organization’s day-to-day business and longer-term vision.

Bold and energizing descriptions of a nonprofit’s activities are more important than ever. They play a leading role in governing resource development and their allocation, marketing, and communications while clarifying what the organization is aiming to accomplish over the longer term.

Both of the organizations described below approached the initial steps of the process differently. The first convened a staff and board of over twenty stakeholders during an all-day retreat. The second discussed challenges over a more intimate dinner with a few trusted colleagues. Both organizations engaged additional community members to subsequently weigh-in at appropriate times.

Whether yours is a start-up or more established, perhaps these two organizations will inspire a second look at critical dimensions of strategic planning.

Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York (MYO)

MYO is twenty-three years old and started a strategic planning process two years ago, but transitions in organizational leadership and other challenges delayed follow-up activities. A funding application for a governance grant illuminated areas to strengthen, such as a vision for the organization. The vision wasn’t explicitly stated and “lives in the head of MYO’s founder” said Anthea Jackson, executive director.

Over the past couple of years, MYO has grown from 650 to 950+ members, added four new ensembles, and increased the size of the board from seven to eleven members. Anthea described the growth process as “throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks.” In this context, the leadership team wanted a deliberate strategic framework for governing growth along with a process to engage stakeholders in moving the organization forward.

“Being relatively new in the community, I wanted to honor the past and envision a future for MYO collaboratively by bringing our staff, board, and music directors into the process,” said Anthea. “It can be challenging to put so many voices in the room, all of them passionate about music education and fiercely proud of the organization. Egos and personal agendas had to be set aside and we were all reminded that we were there for MYO, not just to protect who we are, but to imagine what’s possible for our organization and the long-lasting effect we can have on the Long Island community.”

Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York board/staff strategic planning retreat at the Smithtown Country Club, Long Island.

Metropolitan Youth Orchestra of New York board/staff strategic planning retreat at the Smithtown Country Club, Long Island. August 30, 2015.

A board/staff retreat focused on getting the key members of the MYO community, quite literally, on the same page. Working teams developed drafts of vision, mission, core values language and established a strategic planning team to further the work with specific, targeted goal dates. A smaller sub-committee of “synthesizers” is whittling at the language until it is ready to share (along with some strategic goals) with the broader community at a public launch celebrating the organization’s renewed energy and direction.

“Putting our vision into words is challenging and we’re not quite there yet,” said Anthea. “We’ll keep nurturing the 3am ideas; the ones where you bolt upright in bed and think ‘Yes, we want every child in Long Island to experience making music in a rigorous and supportive environment!’ and we will keep working together to create our strongest and most audacious language to express that idea.”

A Fresh Chapter

In 2009, Terri Wingham was diagnosed with breast cancer. By 2011, her final surgery was behind her and she found herself grappling with feelings of isolation, depression, survivor guilt, and anger. Through volunteering and travel experiences, Terri began to formulate some ideas for addressing the emotional and psychological aspects of cancer through personally meaningful travel and volunteerism.

In February 2013, twelve men and women joined her for a two-week pilot program in New Delhi, India. While this and other travel odysseys resulted in various “Ah-ha” moments for cancer survivors turned volunteer travelers, she found herself scrambling to find the “missing bunny in the magician’s hat” as she struggled to verbalize a vision and mission.

Over a March 2015 dinner in New York City, Terri, myself, and a few colleagues helped answer a question that haunted her, “How would we grow or become sustainable if I couldn’t paint a clearer picture of who we are and why it matters?” We explored that question through the remainder of the evening. Read more about Terri’s vivid and beautiful odyssey on her blog.

Terri’s take-a-way other than a delightful dessert? Several months later, she shared her now explicit vision and mission with a potential donor:

Terri's Vision Image

“Our vision is a world where the pain and adversity of cancer opens a doorway to new purpose, possibility, and connection in the lives of men and women around the globe. Our mission is to heal the emotional scars of cancer through volunteering and meaningful travel.”

She didn’t see in her listener a furrowed brow of confusion as before but an expression of wonder. An invitation to elaborate! “When participants step beyond the borders of their cancer stories, they see that struggle is universal and new dreams are possible.”

The response of her potential donor? “Boom! That’s a great elevator pitch. Tell me more.” This same friend has a friend in Cape Town who now wants to support upcoming program activity. Terri attributes her success to the “lesson on clarity I learned in March.”

Magicians and Visionaries

Are you a magician searching for the missing bunny in a hat? Or a visionary who energizes your community with a bold, vivid, and audacious description of your world after your mission has been accomplished?

I think that organizational leaders tend to be a bit of both at different times during their leadership tenure. However you describe yourself, strategic success is shaped by the degree to which organizations can find the clarity that Terri is talking about and the courage demonstrated by Anthea, who is developing a vision for her organization in its twenty-third year after being in her position for no more than two.

Such vivid descriptions, ironically, can act like magic upon potential stakeholders. They can melt hearts, galvanize enthusiasm, quickly identify the like-minded, and inspire investment from those who say, “Tell me more!”

Ah! The magic of courageous clarity.

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2 comments
  1. Terri said:

    Thank you so much for including our story here. We are grateful to have supporters/advisors like you in the A Fresh Chapter tribe.

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