Is Higher Education Unable to Articulate a Vision? How About Your Nonprofit?

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Wite-Out and Shadow / J B

November 6, 2016; Chronicle of Higher Education

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Daniel Seymour suggests that institutions of higher education are not great at expressing their visions for themselves. He draws this conclusion from a survey of 140 colleges and universities.

So, what should a “vision” be, exactly?

It should create structural tension between an actual state (where we are) and a desired state (where we want to be). That tension should lead to strategic actions to resolve the discrepancy. This means vision statements need to be stated in forward-leaning language—“will be,” “aspires to become.”

But, he says, many of the so-called vision statements he surfaced in the survey are stuck in a stable state, “as though many colleges feel that they have already arrived at their destinations and see no real need to challenge themselves or the status quo.” He also found little connection between the vision statements of the institutions and their strategic plans, even to their respective locations on websites. Finally, he writes, the statements lack any real distinction. This leads to an embarrassing result:

Much of the language being used by colleges and universities involves words such as “excellence,” “quality,” and “preeminent.” Such words are then seemingly cobbled together to develop vision statements. Indeed, the analysis shows that many institutions fail the “Wite-Out Test”—institutional vision statements within Carnegie categories are placed side by side, Wite-Out is applied to the names of the colleges, and they immediately become indistinguishable from one another.

Well, that kind of defeats the purpose. Taking the question out to include other kinds of nonprofits, the tension between a current state and the desired future state of your effort serves as an energy field that coheres smart, independent people and diverse departments around a shared future that has been chosen, rather than visited upon a disorganized entity from without.

And this “visiting” of control is a real and present danger, writes Seymour, “in an era of accountability in which the locus of control has shifted. Everyone—state agencies, boards, magazines, television pundits—has an opinion about what we should be doing, how we should assess ourselves, and increasingly, in the public sector, states have created budgets with strings attached.” This leaves many organizations, especially those with multiple departments or program areas, in a fragile, easily fractured state.

NPQ is by no means a strict believer in the vision statement per se, but we are believers in the “visioning” thing—the tension that’s created by continuously calling the desired future into use as a yardstick of agreed-upon progress.

We’d love to hear how your organizations have created this now-vs.-future energy. Write to us and tell us how you created it, and how it has worked or not worked for you.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Ruth, describing the desired future is important, but that still risks failing the wite-out test if your organization’s vision describes the future in generic terms that are indistinguishable from peer organizations in the same sector. The vision — and the rest of any organization’s messaging — should have its unique ingredients baked in. When a nonprofit or a university has a strong sense of how its theory of change — what it uniquely does to get results and move toward that future — then that positioning has a chance of showing up in the ways the organization talks about itself.