“The Vision Thing” (or, How to Be a Purpose Whisperer)

Recently it was my privilege to speak at consulting firm Washburn & McGoldrick’s annual client conference. Karin George, Bonnie Devlin, Carla Willis and the whole W&McG team provide expert fundraising counsel to colleges and universities across the country. They asked me to explore the topic of leadership vision, specifically how to turn leadership planning and direction into the kind of compelling narrative that inspires engagement and investment.

The Vision Thing

I often counsel about-to-be-new college presidents that it won’t be long after the appointment before they’ll be asked about what I call “the vision thing.” What’s your vision for the institution? What does the future look like? These questions will come long before the new leader has unpacked her desk clock, and especially in the early going there is a delicate balance between offering too many new ideas and listening to what the community wants and needs (more on that in an earlier PRG Blog post).

New leadership or not, though, I have found that often Advancement and Communications staff find themselves asked to raise money for, or tell a story about, something that the institution needs rather than something that is compelling and deeply engaging for stakeholders.

“The vision thing” is about articulating the future state in an inspirational way, and in a way that conveys concrete impact. Here are some characteristics that make for compelling vision and leadership priority-setting:

It is distinctive. That is, it’s differentiating, and it’s not what everyone else has or says.

It is resonant with the culture, building on institutional assets and strengths and amplifying them in new and exciting ways.

It is crystal clear, and crisp.

It is emotionally appealing.

 It is bold.

 A terrific example of all this? Colby College’s Dare Northward campaign. The theme itself speaks to the bold appeal, the campaign priorities build on Colby’s liberal arts core in new and fresh ways, and the leadership vision is clear and crisp: “We will leverage our existing strengths to enhance our students’ experiences, improve their outcomes, and produce generations of leaders to tackle the world’s greatest challenges.”

It’s About the “Why”

Leadership expert Simon Sinek’s concept of The Golden Circle helped me better understand how to inspire and engage stakeholders. In his now-famous TED Talk, Sinek drew three concentric circles. The outside circle is the “what.” In corporate speak, that might be products or services, but we can translate it into institutional priorities like a new science building, or endowed professorships, or scholarship support. The next circle is the “how,” such as “we have dedicated faculty members who teach and mentor our students.” OK, great, but it’s still not enough. Sinek argues that organizations and initiatives will be most effective in garnering trust when they start with the inner-most circle — the “why.” It is our purpose — our core beliefs and values — that really helps others connect with us on an authentic level, and encourages them to come along with us on the journey. One of my favorite lines from that talk:

“People don’t buy what you sell. They buy what you believe.”

 Recently Loyola University Chicago announced a transformational $100M gift for scholarships and support services for underrepresented students. University president Dr. Jo Ann Rooney perfectly captured “the why” of the gift: “Students with talent, grit, and promising leadership potential are, far too often, left out of life-changing scholarship opportunities and services due to circumstances beyond their control. Our Jesuit, Catholic mission is to seek out and support anyone who is traditionally underserved and embrace those willing to work hard and thrive…This leadership gift creates opportunity, renews hope, and begins to holistically address and remove systemic barriers to student success and opportunity while inspiring others to take action.”

Not very long ago, author and historian Jim Tobin wrote an article for the University of Michigan alumni magazine that has stuck with me. In it, he reflects on the University’s recent cultural challenges and presidential firing. He took the long view, recognizing that though sometimes individual leaders don’t live up to our ideals or break our trust, higher education plays a special and enduring role in society. “The institution is the purpose made permanent,” he wrote.

Our Superpower:  Purpose Whispering

Washburn & McGoldrick’s Carla Willis interviewed me as part of the conference program, and asked me about what Advancement officers and Communications teams need to consider to avoid traps and build effective cases for support:

Strategic plans do not magically become case statements, and not everything in a strategic plan is a fundraising priority. If I had a nickel for every Advancement officer who expressed frustration about this, well…you know. Change management expert John Kotter said that the least effective visions for change are “those that assume linear or logical plans and budget alone adequately guide behavior.” Communicators and fundraisers need to help their leadership teams pull out, lift up and articulate key planning priorities that will inspire and compel.

We can guide and support leaders by asking good questions about why the plans matter, who will benefit, and what the concrete impact for students and society will be.  My partner Julie Peterson has a rubric she has used to guide these discussions:

1.Why give for THIS? What is it about the purpose and impact of the gift that is meaningful?

2. Why give for this HERE? What distinctive capabilities does the organization bring to the table that will allow it to do this work uniquely well?

3. Why give for this here NOW? What is going on in the world that makes this an important agenda at this time?

4. And why is philanthropy the best/only way to accomplish this? In other words, can this be better funded through some other mechanism, or is philanthropy really the best avenue to achieve the stated goals?

I have often jokingly referred to me and my PRG colleagues as “strategy whisperers,” because I believe that when we listen really well and ask the right questions, strategy often reveals itself in the conversations. Perhaps as we consider our roles in helping a leader’s vision come to life, we should think of ourselves as “purpose whisperers.” It can make all the difference in enabling leadership to more effectively convey impact, and express not just the what and the how, but the why.

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