One of my primary roles as the leader of a non-profit is to vision for the future of the organization. This is something that crosses my mind every single day – sometimes for minutes and sometimes for hours – weekends included! You might ask, “how do you do that?” After all, there are countless things to consider: finances, raising dollars, programs and services, succession planning, leadership development, Board engagement, staff retention, recruitment, and the list goes on and on. Not to mention the situation in the world we live in, both locally and globally, and how that affects the need for the services we offer and the methods by which we deliver them. Just consider our current experience of living through a worldwide pandemic that has changed all our lives in so many ways.
Creating a road map for the future success of the organization is both an art and a science. It resembles an orchestra, when all the pieces come together through the art and science of music to create a symphony.
First, the science: to create an elaborate piece of music, the key components – pitch, tempo, rhythm, movements – must be in perfect alignment to produce the desired effect. This holds true for all the elements working in formation to create a successful blueprint for organizational evolution. When one component of an organization is out of alignment, future planning can be compromised, delayed, or even halted while the weakened part is addressed. Factors such as solid leadership at all levels, diversified and steady funding, and a healthy organizational culture must be thriving for a future direction to be determined.
Also, under the science umbrella are the principles of strategic thinking that all healthy organizations follow. This begins with continuously and honestly answering the crucial question regarding organizational mission and relevance. “Is our reason for existence still critical to the community that we serve and if so, is our work informed by current trends and needs?” Understanding the landscape of an ever- changing community sits at the center of establishing a vision for the future by permitting the organization, like the orchestral piece, to evolve.
How to bring people into the process of creating future direction so that they own it along with you is the art of the process. Imperative for success is stakeholder engagement. A musical composition requires the instrumentalists to be committed, and the audience to be emotionally invested. It needs to touch and move all involved to reach its apex.
In the same way, an executive director must be able to articulate the organization’s vision to staff, Board, donors, and community partners in a way that conveys and engenders passion, dedication, and a deep belief in its value. A leader must be able to express the importance of the stakeholder’s role in helping the organization achieve its goals, speaking with conviction about the choice to move in a certain direction with the understanding that not all will embrace this line of thinking.
Stakeholders may need time to process changing goals and new directions. Sometimes plans conflict with past ways of working, creating fear of change. A leader must be effective at staying the course with those who express concerns, hearing them out and demonstrating an openness to their point of view. Listening and gentle response is all part of the engagement process. It takes time and patience and an ability to at times live with disagreement while always valuing the relationship.
Hopefully the continued engagement enables all parties to come together when codifying a plan. This is the art of strategic planning – achieving balance and validation for everyone.
This is the work that comes with leading a non-profit. Just offering future direction is not enough. It must be accompanied by a relevant mission, a progressive outlook on innovative ways to achieve impact, leadership, funding, culture, and most importantly, creating a space for stakeholders to have ownership of the process.
The leader of a non-profit resembles the orchestra conductor, scientifically putting together the pieces so that each instrumentalist is doing their part as planned while artistically aiming to inspire the musicians to create music that unites everyone in their common mission.
It takes the various instruments, the talents of those who play them, and the audience who values their work, to make the music achieve its goal.