I worked with a client recently on developing a theory of change, and part of the process involves coming up with a vision statement. The vision reflects the organization’s desired outcome for the system in which they work. In other words, what does the system look like in a perfect world?
When we came up with a vision statement, it was big – not just bold, but on a global scale that goes well beyond the capabilities of this little organization of just a few people. There were two questions that arose: Is this vision statement too ambitious? And is this vision statement unique enough to our organization?
Here’s the thing: no organization works alone to transform a system (though they may think and act like they do). Transformation of an entire system is a huge undertaking, one that requires a diversity of approaches and competencies. Systems are complex and multifaceted, and multiple types of interventions will be required. An organization that tries to tackle them all will find itself reaching beyond its capabilities. (Conversely, an organization that thinks there’s only one way to solve a problem will not reach far enough.) And because no one can do it alone, the vision statement shouldn’t be unique to any one organization, because hopefully others share your vision and are working with you towards the same goal.
Within any given system, there will be multiple organizations or entities, each trying to transform the system in a different way. Each organization therefore occupies its own niche (hopefully), but collectively they bring about a common vision for the system.
Take education for example. There are several different groups in the Bay Area working on improving the education system in Oakland. Some focus on teacher preparation, some focus on after-school programming, some focus on informal education programs, some focus on testing and standards, and others will focus on policy at the state and federal levels. Then there are government agencies and privates entities with their own goals and contributions to the education system. Each group has its own objectives, but they all are working towards a common vision: an Oakland school district that meets the needs of its students.
A lot of times organizations equate a theory of change with a strategy: if we do this, then we will achieve that. If a theory of change is done right, it takes a broader systemic view, and helps an organization to identify (1) the potential points of intervention, (2) its unique role in bringing about the vision (the mission), and (3) areas of needed coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. In this way, an organization can define its unique value while also understanding how all the different actors collectively create change.
Thus, the vision is a systemic view beyond the organization, a goal to be achieved collectively, and the mission statement is the organization’s role within that system, based on its strengths and competencies and the needs and opportunities in the system.
No organization is an island, and no organization can do it all. But together, with a shared vision and clearly defined roles, organizations can achieve more than any one of them can achieve alone.
Does your organization have a vision statement that defines a collective achievement? Does your organization’s mission statement reflect its unique role within the system? Are you working with others who share an interest in the same issues?