Visionary Leadership

One tension within any business or non-profit organization is growth versus quality—relative to our assurance as to how we function in our respective spheres of influence.

The role of a visionary leader in a nonprofit organization

Visionary leadership discussion with staff
The visionary leader creates the vision that is implemented by his/her valuable staff.

On the one hand, if we simply maintain our place in our industry, we fall victim to the changes in our society that might render us extinct. Yet, if we grow too rapidly, our capability to implement our programs or products with proficiency might suffer.
Keeping both agendas on the radar while maintaining financial balance within the organization is quite a challenging task, particularly for a nonprofit.

Specific to a nonprofit environment

A myriad of changes that call for new vision from leadership has impacted LEN. For example, Pennsylvania cut $800 million in funding for education. As a result, in light of our relationships with 25 school districts, we have seen significant decreases in their referrals of students to us, although thousands of students in our region still have significant needs.

Financial realities require us to adapt while continuing our mission within our community. Demand weighs heavily on funding sources. Other nonprofits have been dependent on government systems or other fundraising efforts.

Depletion of funding makes it particularly challenging to serve the perpetual need of deep relational programs. We are faced with finding ever leaner and less expensive solutions without compromise of care for students and families. Choices become exceedingly difficult.

We choose NOT to compromise quality

The temptation when facing monumental decisions is to pull back, circle the wagons and try to sustain while the battle for funding (or survival) rages. Sometimes we may be tempted to compromise quality in order to maintain staff and standard levels of programs. After all, we have seen programs close in our region. We also have seen professionals outside of our organization who help students get what they need be laid off or forced to take on more responsibility due to staffing cuts. Wow, what a difficult world we live in.

In challenging moments, leadership needs not to withdraw but to step forward to lead with vision and innovation.

I remember a humorous moment in the early part of my career when the Founder of Lakeside, Bill Freeland (who closed his career raising funds for Lakeside’s projects), said about me to one of our potential funders, “Ever since he came, he has not been happy unless we are tearing down something and building something else!” In my mind that was so normal, and it confirmed how much of an innovator he allowed me to be.

Social entrepreneur in nonprofit management

A number of years ago we coined this term. Part of the idea of social entrepreneurship was that leaders in nonprofit organizations needed to think in the business as much as the growth realm.

Leaders have to continue to produce a vision to grow programs, build on steps of success, and secure opportunities to increase capacity and mission. Simultaneously, we must ensure the financial, technological and practical resources demanded to implement the vision with quality and character.

Therefore, a growth dynamic has to be intentional, valued and planned by all those within the organization. Leaders must constantly regard the current culture, opportunities, obstacles and the future aspects of the organization’s physical and relational environment while focusing continually on growth.

But vision doesn’t stop there

The visionary leader must have a vision for each individual within his staff and programs. True visionaries are also developers of people. It is essential that we frame our vision with good logic, reason and hopefulness within the context of our mission. We must seek feedback from our own leadership, communicate well, and find and focus resources at developing and adapting the vision as we move ahead, tracking if it is doable and effective.

Working out the details…how the vision is being implemented, falls upon our valuable staff. Any vision needs to be a plan that learns if it is going to become effective.

So, visionary leadership is not just a new set of ideas but an entire process involving visioning for the organization and the staff (to empower them to move forward.)  It means visionary leaders are consumed with providing people the personal support, supervision, resources, tools and opportunity to grow in their own strengths. It means we will be conscious of societal trends. It means we will be communicators of our vision to our staff and the world around us. Finally, it means we have to be confident and tenacious in the belief of our mission and vision, while being flexible to learn how we can improve.

In the world we live in, holistic visionary leadership will be essential to survive the midst of new challenges. Yet, the outcomes will continue to help our clients, staff and organizations grow and succeed.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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