The Vision Thing

The novelist John Irving says he cannot begin writing until he knows the final sentence of his novel.  When I first heard this, I scoffed.  I am a woman who prefers beginnings.  I love the clean page, the new job, the promises of a new relationship. But during the time of my consulting, I have become a convert to John Irving’s way.  It is about the vision thing.  You really can get where you want to go better if you know where it is you are headed.

I once worked for a man who often proclaimed that we “didn’t do the vision thing” at our institution.  We were what we were and that was what we had always been.  Unfortunately, at a point in time, what we were was anachronistic. The lack of a vision had turned what had been a vital, vibrant place into something that delivered our students less than they deserved and hampered our staff and faculty.  Fortunately, a solid foundation and new leadership was able to turn that around.  But it might not have been the case.

Too often, nonprofits are so busy doing what they do, they forget to consider what they want to be.  They worry about the present and ignore the future.

A few weeks ago, Newsweek had an interview with Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger.  While I’m not a big fan of the latter, he is credited with one of my favorite quotes, which posits “the politics in higher education are so insidious because there is so little at stake.”

In this article he notes that “One of the problems of government is to separate the urgent from the important and make sure you’re dealing with the important and don’t let the urgent drive out the important.”  Replace “government” with “nonprofits” and we could welcome Henry to our world.

Things that appear to be urgent get taken care of immediately.  Things that are “merely” important (and remember, by definition, important things have value or significance) too often get pushed back—sometimes so far back they never get addressed.

A lot of fundraising, especially, suffers from this.  We raise the money we can now because it is there and because it solves an urgent need—which too often is to show that we are raising money.  By contrast, we neglect to build a viable, sustainable, comprehensive fund development program because, while that will make a lasting difference and very probably help to make major changes in the way our organization works, it will do it later, over time, in the future.

And sometimes, that future never comes.  Sometimes, quite literally.  Because we haven’t planned, envisioned where we want to go, taken care of the important for our organizations, we find ourselves out of places to scramble to solve the most immediate crisis.

Particularly—but not exclusively—if your organization is in crisis, or just not doing as well as it might, force yourself to take a deep breath, carve out some time and consider:  Where do you want to be in three or five years?  Take a big chunk of the next meeting of the Executive Committee of the Board and through this out to them.  If you’re not the CEO, don’t drive the organization, ask the question of the program(s) you have some influence over.

Your vision doesn’t have to be only about the big picture.  Think about all the fires you put out in the last three or four months?  How many of those were just flare-ups of older fires?  Can you see yourself in 2013 putting out the <i>same</i>fires?  Doesn’t that just make you tired?

If, for example, every single time you want to pull a list of donors who have consistently supported you over a period of time, and you can’t because you don’t have a donor tracking system and the way your gifts are receipted…well, if you are gritting your teeth, you know the rest of this story (and if you’re not, this may be one issue that has already been resolved; don’t worry, there are others), perhaps it is time to visit Techsoup, read the report at Idealware, bite that bullet and do something really important for your fundraising future.

If you can’t get your arms around this vision thing, think forward to the day you leave this job.  After you are gone, what is it you want people to say about your work there?  Do you want them to say you raised more money than anyone?  Brought systems where there weren’t any?  Built a Board that is the envy of your peers?  Help to grow the organization so more people could be served?

Whatever that final sentence is, write it out, and then, like John Irving, start on the path to get there.

Janet Levine is a consultant working with nonprofit and educational organizations, primarily in the areas of resource development, Board building and strategic planning.  Her online classes in fundraising and grantwriting are available at