Vision is a Powerful Tool for Association Growth

Does your association have a vision statement that reads like a “big hairy audacious goal?” Many probably don’t and you may be thinking “I hope we never get one because it sounds like a lot of work!” But a big hairy audacious goal, or BHAG, can be a valuable association membership recruitment and retention tool.

In his Harvard Business Review article, “Building Your Company’s Vision” with Jerry Porras, Jim Collins, well-respected author of Good to Great, identifies vision as one of the critical things that helps companies and nonprofit organizations succeed. Here are a few of my thoughts on why so many organizations don’t have a strong vision, along with some suggestions for overcoming these barriers to developing one.

Vision Confusion: Nonprofit organizations often confuse mission with vision. According to Collins, mission is the organization’s timeless reason for being, such as “Promoting stewardship of the earth’s resources.” Vision is something else entirely. It is “a 10-to30-year audacious goal plus vivid descriptions of what it will be like to achieve the goal. A daunting challenge that is clear and compelling, it serves as a unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line so everyone will know when it has been achieved.” For an association in 2021, that vision might be “doubling our membership by helping members navigate event challenges of the Covid era with critical perspectives, tools, training, and support.” Mission is eternal. Vision is achievable.

Vision Reluctance: When we set a BHAG for ourselves, we go out on a limb. Dreaming big can be scary. What if we don’t succeed? It seems risky to tell the world we are going to achieve something so audacious. However, the advantages far outweigh the risks. Collect and share stories of effective vision statements and their successful impact on member engagement, program development, and new member recruitment to help leadership overcome these fears and commit to a bold vision.

Vision Mechanics: Many associations don’t know how to come up with a powerful vision. Here are a few ideas to get you started.

1. Reaffirm your mission and values. Be clear about this or your organization may set a vision that is in conflict with your organization’s core ideology. The Collins & Porras article is an excellent resource. (Harvard Business Review, September – October 1996)

2. Understand your context. Your ability to have relevance and make an impact depend upon it. Think about recent trends that are affecting your members. What kind of impact do you want to have? What challenges do your members have to overcome? What opportunities do they most want to seize? How can your association be at the center of that transformation? Your best ideas for a powerful vision statement will come from this kind of thinking.

3. Use “is” language in your vision – as though the transformation has already taken place. One of the motivating aspects of a vision statement is that it helps you picture the future as you want it to be. So, state the envisioned future as though you have already attained it and use vivid descriptions that will inspire everyone who reads it.

4. Engage your members in dreaming up potential B-HAGs. Create a number of possible statements of tangible visions, vividly described. Ask people to imagine what each vision would command of the organization in terms of its strategies and allocation of resources. A strong vision gets stakeholders excited about the potential for impact and engagement of others.

5. Once you have approved a strong vision statement, start telling people about it. You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to convince people to join your organization, get involved and support your efforts to realize the bold vision you are pursuing.

Kathleen Welsh Beveridge is President of Spark Nonprofit Consulting, a company that ignites nonprofit effectiveness and financial sustainability by supporting nonprofit leaders in their efforts to develop strong boards, create sound strategies, build organizational capacity, engage their community, and raise more money for their mission. Beveridge is a certified facilitator of the Core Capacity Assessment Tool or CCAT (TCC Group’s premiere organizational assessment tool for nonprofits) and is registered as a professional fundraising counsel with the Pennsylvania Department of State’s Bureau of Charitable Organizations.

Photo by Amy McDermott, Heart and Soul Portraits.