Sunday, January 9, 2011

Beyond Vision Statements

“Democratic nations care but little for what has been, but they are haunted by visions of what will be; in this direction their unbounded imagination grows and dilates beyond all measure,” said Alexis de Tocqueville, the prescient observer of early 19th Century America. Indeed, that’s why vision is such an important element in making a philanthropic case. Americans are still far more interested in what will be than what has been.

And, yet, vision is hard to come by. When advancement leaders confide in me about the challenges they face within the institutions they proudly represent, the most common, by a wide margin, is a “lack of vision” at the top. Their most promising prospects, particularly on that all-important first call, frequently ask, “What is your president’s vision” or “what is your president trying to accomplish?” In those moments, they struggle to do justice to their leader and to be true to their prospects. In fact, in my experience, most vision statements originate out of the advancement office, not out of the office of the institutional leader. Advancement leaders, and the front line representatives of the institution, feel the need for vision virtually every day -- in igniting the interests of key constituents, in establishing unifying themes for their communications, in planning and staging of events, and in allocating human and financial resources. The more clearly an organization can define where it going and why, the more effectively it can be administered. And, of course, the less clearly it can define where it is going, the less efficiently it can be administered.

Efforts to substitute for a lack of vision, no matter how well-intentioned, inevitably prove unsatisfactory. Sometimes, for instance, a writer will be hired to write a campaign vision statement, often to create a construct that gives coherence to the wish list of requests submitted by various internal stakeholders. But, since it is an after-the-fact overlay and not a cornerstone of direction-setting, and has not emanated from the top or been echoed in the policies and practices of the institution, much less the speeches of the president, it can have little internal or external impact. In other instances, someone from outside will be brought in to lead a “visioning process” but in my estimation that phrase is an oxymoron. Vision is not the product of process. Whether a vision statement evolves out of a process or is created elsewhere and vetted through a process matters little. Process politicizes and dilutes vision. It yields one of two results: the generic vision (e.g. “We will be increasingly green, global and interdisciplinary” ... a claim now being made by scores of universities) or the Goldilocks vision (“we won’t be too big or too small, too student-oriented or too research-oriented, too urban or too rural; we’ll be JUST RIGHT!).

A vision is not a string of grandiloquent phrases or an ethereal rumination. It is a means of defining an ambitious but attainable goal, or a small number of goals, for an institution based on a calculation of how current assets can be best leveraged, in the face of external challenges and emerging opportunities, to deliver greater value to those it exists to serve. It is the way an institution correlates the difference it can make to where society most needs a difference to be made.

All of this leads me to conclude that the best way to help institutions is not to say, “We need a vision” but “we need to define with as much precision as possible how we intend to use every philanthropic dollar from this day on.” Yes, it would be nice to have a clear, choice-making, courageous vision coming from the top but, absent that, every institution must be able to define the role that philanthropic support is playing in improving the institution’s delivery of service. Decades ago, the University of Michigan defined it as the “margin of excellence.” It was and is an especially apt phrase because it speaks to what American philanthropy is about -- making an investment in what will be, in allowing an institution to better serve, to take its delivery systems from good to great. In the psychology of our culture, we see charity as the margin of survival and philanthropy as the margin of excellence. We give generously to charity but our largest investments go to philanthropy.

If we mix philanthropic support with other institutional funds, we miss the opportunity to define the difference that philanthropy makes. We dilute its impact. Institutions of higher learning, for instance, would be wise to treat tuition dollars, whether they come directly from the payers or the state, as the means of funding basic operations and allowing the institution to provide good service, while making it clear that private support will be used to carefully augment those dollars in pursuit of selective excellence. They would be wise to make sure that tuition dollars allowed the institution to be good across the board, and to cut operational expenses, including programs, if that standard could not be maintained with current levels of tuition income. In that way, the institution could always demonstrate how private support was being used to pursue greatness.

That’s what vision is all about, to define and seek, no matter what the conditions, the margin of excellence in the context of service. And that’s the kind of vision that always has, always will inspire strong, sustained philanthropic support, no matter what.

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