by Kate Brierty, consultant, Hedges

Rapid change has been relentless. Over the past 18 months, many organizations have been forced to make tough decisions about how to continue their work with limited resources and difficult contexts. Others have swiftly and significantly expanded programs and staff to meet a growing demand for their services. The ability to make split-second decisions and fast adaptations has been essential for every nonprofit organization to survive.

As we begin to consider how to reliably deliver meaningful impact in our new context, many organizations have carved out space to reflect on what’s new, what’s next and how to move forward in a sustainable way. Now more than ever, we are hearing that strategic planning has been challenging as organizations have found increased misalignment between their stated mission, what they do currently, and what future actions the changes in their communities call for. After factoring in the desires of a community, funders and a team, it can feel like an organization is left trying to be everything to everyone.

If this frustration or misalignment feels familiar, your organization might benefit from pressing pause on strategic planning until you can revisit and realign what’s most core to your organization: your vision, mission and values. It can sometimes be difficult to tell when this reflection process is needed, but the five questions below can help you determine if investing the time on vision, mission and value work now might help you avoid frustration, build alignment, and create a stronger plan for your organization’s future.

  1. Does your organization need to define its vision, mission and values?

This might seem obvious, but you’ll first want to consider if your organization has taken the time to clearly write out its vision, mission and values. You might use different terms to describe this work (like calling it an organization’s purpose or commitment); regardless it is important for these core pieces to be internalized and aligned across the organization.

Before this alignment can occur, Board and executive leadership need to start by ensuring the organization’s vision, mission and values exist and are current, by asking: Is there a document where these pieces have been defined? Do internal and external audiences know where and how to find these definitions?

Although the format of the content might look different for each organization, these documents should contain formal, scripted answers to a few simple questions:
Vision- If your organization were successful, what would the new reality look like for your community?

Mission- What role does your organization play in helping create that new reality?

Values- What beliefs and principles are central to how you do your work and operate in the community?

Stakeholders look for and expect vision, mission and values to be spelled out publicly, and you don’t want to leave those stakeholders wondering why the organization is not being transparent about its purpose. Without having all three foundational pieces clearly outlined, internal and external stakeholders can also be forced to create their own definitions that may or may not align with the organization’s actual strategic direction. Formalizing these definitions before beginning any planning ensures that teams can ask clarifying questions and build understanding of these core facts about the organization before jumping into planning from them.

  1. Is there significant misalignment or disagreement within your team?

Having your vision, mission and values defined and known is essential, but it is often not enough to create the clarity your team needs to utilize these tools in planning. With many of our nonprofit partners we have found that when there is significant frustration on a team during a planning process, it is coming from each member of the team fighting for what they personally believe must be prioritized based on their own interpretation of the organization’s foundational pieces.

Sometimes when we feel that tension at the start of a planning process, we’ll hear folks say things like: “Remember that we’re all here for the same mission!” And that might be technically true. However, each team member’s view of that mission is shaped by their own experiences and interpretations. Creating intentional space to help the organization discuss and align on these core components can allow your entire team to create a shared understanding of how you would define these pieces in your organization’s context. We have seen defining values to be a particularly impactful exercise to create alignment with staff and board teams, as the full organization works together to craft a definition for each value that is relevant and meaningful to the team’s current work.

Even with shared understanding, there might still be significant misalignment or disagreement about the organization’s future. However, building the team’s capacity to utilize this common language and shared commitments in the planning process can help you productively move through disagreement towards stronger results for the organization and less frustration for everyone involved in the process.

  1. Does your organization no longer effectively utilize your vision, mission and values?

Vision, mission and values define what is core to your organization. They are the foundation for everything you do. That means they should be a part of every planning or evaluation conversation in the organization.

These foundational pieces of the organization should be a large piece of comprehensive planning processes, and they should serve as guideposts when making decisions around budget, staffing, development, or program evaluation. For example:

When you are considering applying for a new grant opportunity, do you revisit your mission and check that the expanded programming falls within the work you’ve committed to do?

When your Board is creating their personal fundraising messages, do you share tools to help them stay vision-focused?

When you are creating your staff performance evaluation systems, is there a portion focused on how their work aligns with the organization’s values?

If your team doesn’t incorporate your vision, mission and values into planning or your current definitions no longer feel like valid tools that can be used in decision making, then it might be time to re-visit these foundational pieces with your team. Building comfort with applying these core components of the organization to everyday work can help your team see and connect with vision, mission and values in a more substantial way.

  1. Have your organization’s programs or services shifted significantly?

If the pandemic has caused your organization to drastically shift what you do to serve your community, you are far from alone. In BKD’s State of the Nonprofit Sector- 2021 Annual Report, of the over 300 nonprofit organization respondents:

  • 89% said they had altered their delivery of programs and services in 2020.
  • 63.7% said they were likely to maintain their current programs and services and add some new.
  • 29.3% said they were likely to eliminate some current programs and services but not add any new.

While some of these program shifts might be meeting a temporary need, many organizations have also been including conversations about how to incorporate some of these updates into their long-term plans. For example, we are seeing some organizations consider shifting their geographic reach to grow to a statewide impact with more virtual services offered, while others are looking to hone their focus on more deeply impacting a specific community.

Before considering the sustainability of any enhanced, expanded, or shifted services, it can be helpful to step back and evaluate what fits with the organization’s current mission. If there is misalignment between proposed services and the current mission, then the organization can have a frank conversation to decide if that mission or the menu of services needs to be adapted.

  1. Have the needs of your community shifted significantly?

A strong vision is based in the context of the community that a nonprofit engages. That community has likely gone through some meaningful change since your organization’s founders crafted the original vision and mission for your work. Moreover, that community has likely changed drastically in the last 18 months as individuals adjust and adapt to the new context in which we all live.

Drastic changes, like those brought about by the pandemic, can be good reminders that every organization needs to be consistently assessing the needs of their community. We have partnered with organizations that have gathered this feedback effectively through a large formal landscape analysis and through intimate feedback conversations with their closest partners and those utilizing their programs and services. It does not need to be a complicated process, but it does need to work for your team or else collecting this data can easily become a low priority that gets pushed to the back burner. No matter how it’s collected, frequent community feedback can alert you to even gradual changes in the landscape and help you identify when it’s time to revisit your vision, mission and values to check their relevance and remain responsive to your community.

If you answered “yes” to any of the five questions above it does not mean you are experiencing an identity crisis or that you are facing major change as an organization. It does mean that taking time to intentionally revisit your organization’s vision, mission and values could be a meaningful experience for your team in this moment.

Your organization’s level of need should determine the depth of engagement your team needs in this work right now. You could make this a formal process tied to larger landscape analysis or long-term strategic planning, or it could be a limited internal conversation to help everyone get on the same page before jumping into the coming year.

No matter how you approach it, being open to this important conversation shows internal and external stakeholders your organization is responsive to the changing needs of your community and ready and willing to take on what’s next.

Kate Brierty is passionate about asking the right questions to help individuals and groups have conversations and make decisions that will create real impact for the people they serve. In all her work as a consultant at Hedges, she is focused on pursuing meaningful results while keeping people at the center of her work.