by PATTON McDOWELL, PRESIDENT
(As part of our 7 Keys blog series, we are focusing on sharpening your message this month).
This month’s topic of sharpening mission and vision brings me back to my first year out of college, working for Special Olympics International in Washington D.C. It was my first experience in the nonprofit sector, and it set me on the nonprofit path on which I remain to this day.
I was fortunate to work at Special Olympics International when its founder, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, was actively engaged. She was an extraordinarily passionate individual, and was adamant that every employee in the organization be consistent and clear in defining its purpose. To her, the mission statement wasn’t just words on a page; we needed to be able to define our purpose as well as educate the world about the cause of serving individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As you can imagine, this population continues to struggle with a lack of understanding and awareness even to this day, so if we were not clear about our purpose, we were only adding to the problem.
And believe me, if you worked anywhere near Mrs. Shriver, you knew that mission statement backwards and forwards! I joke that we were fearful of being stopped by her in the hallway and asked to recite it (that never happened!), but such was her intensity about the mission being clear and easily verbalized by everyone involved with the organization.
While a purpose-defining mission statement was essential to telling the story, Mrs. Shriver took it two steps further. She felt it was also critical that each Special Olympics organization be able to provide a roadmap of where it was going. While we were proud of the thousands of individuals being served, the need was so much greater. In North Carolina, our vision was to reach half of the eligible population inside of ten years. It was a bold vision, but one that aided in defining the need as well as suggesting how we would approach meeting the need with a measurement that encouraged accountability.
The final piece to the story, according to Mrs. Shriver, was to indicate what the organization would do in the next fiscal year to move closer to achieving the ambitious vision. Here, the organization makes tangible what progress looks like (e.g. we’re serving this new geography, expanding this tested program, deepening the experience for this specific audience, etc.). In many ways, this was the brilliance of Mrs. Shriver – she understood that people want to see the big picture of where you are going, but are equally attracted to tangible next steps.
As the articulation of mission, vision and action are often used as a means to attract individuals to become stakeholders, I can attest to the power of these three steps to sharpening an organization’s message. Indeed, Mrs. Shriver’s sage advice has become a touchstone for me and our firm as we work with organizations struggling to effectively articulate purpose and progress.