Vision Before Strategy: A Nonprofit’s Guide to Defining Success

Defining the desired outcome and what constitutes success in measurable terms helps stakeholders align their actions and priorities, ensuring that every effort is geared toward achieving this shared vision.

Vision Before Strategy: A Nonprofit’s Guide to Defining Success
14 mins read

Defining the desired outcome and what constitutes success in measurable terms helps stakeholders align their actions and priorities, ensuring that every effort is geared toward achieving this shared vision.

What does success look like for your nonprofit?

When imagining the future of a nonprofit organization, we often delve straight into strategic planning. We start thinking of all the possibilities of what our organization might look like in the future: all the programs we could add, all the ways we could expand and grow. However, before we go all the way down that rabbit hole, we must ask one crucial question: What does success look like?

Perhaps because my nonprofit works with food, I like to think of this question in terms of planning a dinner party. That is, you can ask someone else to plan a wonderful dinner party for you, but what a “wonderful party” looks like for one person may be a nightmare scenario for another. Having a clear vision of what success looks like to you provides both a clear goal and destination for the entire organization. Defining the desired outcome in measurable terms helps stakeholders align their actions and priorities, ensuring that every effort is geared toward achieving this shared vision.

Without a clear vision of success, organizations risk drifting aimlessly, with stakeholders pulling in different directions and wasting resources on unaligned initiatives. Furthermore, this envisioned success fuels inspiration and motivation. When teams have a clear understanding of what they are working toward together, they can become more engaged and committed. This vision sparks enthusiasm, fostering a collective purpose and driving innovation. It enables individuals to see the larger picture and understand their role in contributing to these clearly defined goals.

The Foundations of Success

To consider what success looks like for your organization, you first need to have solid answers to three foundational questions:

  • What do you provide (product, service, and/or value)?
  • Who do you do it for?
  • How is it paid for?

Let’s break these questions down.

What do you provide?

To break this question down, we might need to ask yet another question: What essential ingredients are needed to curate this product, service, and/or value?

Nonprofit organizations operate with the goal of serving the public interest or a specific community need, rather than generating profits for shareholders. For example, a nonprofit promoting adult literacy might also offer services such as tutoring sessions, educational workshops, and access to reading resources. To curate these services, they would need essential ingredients: skilled educators, curricula tailored to adult learners, accessible physical or digital classroom venues, learning materials, support staff for administration and outreach, and feedback mechanisms to continuously improve their offerings. After all, the true value this organization provides—their operational goals—is not just in teaching adults to read but in empowering individuals with knowledge, boosting their confidence, and opening doors to better opportunities in their personal and professional lives.

Who do you do it for?

In this, we have to be specific, as this most likely encompasses several target audiences or business models. You can’t be something for everyone, so you must determine who exactly your organization is meant to serve.

Even a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting survivors of domestic abuse, for example, in fact serves a diverse cohort of individuals. That is, part of the nonprofit’s role is to (hopefully) anticipate that the people they serve are not monolithic: they might include women escaping immediate threats, men who often face societal stigmas in admitting abuse, LGBTQ+ members who might experience unique challenges in abusive relationships, and children bearing silent witness to domestic violence. Each persona requires a nuanced approach: they might offer emergency shelters and legal assistance for women, support groups and tailored counseling for men, safe spaces that respect the varied identities of LGBTQ+ survivors, and therapy sessions for children to address trauma. By understanding the distinct needs of each group (as well as variations within the groups themselves), the nonprofit can more effectively tailor its services and outreach, ensuring every survivor feels seen, heard, and supported—the ultimate form of success.

How is it paid for?

This might seem like a straight-forward question, but anyone involved in the planning side of things knows that all too often, funding reigns king. And even though funding is important, it is often cobbled together from a variety of different sources.

Take GreenRoots Foundation, a nonprofit that provides sustainable farming education and resources to various demographics in urban settings. Their funding structure is multifaceted, deriving income from grants, donor contributions, and partnerships with local businesses. To ensure inclusive access, they employ a sliding scale fee model for their workshops: high-income urban professionals pay a premium, mid-income families pay a standard fee, and low-income households (including at-risk youth) attend for minimal or no cost. This cross-subsidization allows them to serve diverse populations, from the eco-conscious corporate worker seeking to grow balcony herbs to the single parent in low-income housing aiming to supplement food sources—even the teenager from a troubled background looking for skills and community. Through this model, GreenRoots Foundation not only disseminates knowledge but also fosters a community where every member, irrespective of their financial standing, contributes to and benefits from the shared mission.

These answers should help you avoid potential pitfalls.

Lacking clarity on the answers to these questions can lead to potential pitfalls. If you’re not sure about your answers, give yourself a timeframe and budget to develop the answers.

Commit to exploration and discovery. Allocate a budget, for instance, $1,500, and a timeline of three months, to conduct market research through interviews, surveys, and direct observations. Proceeding with this essential groundwork will likely lead to greater success.

Next, plan for the broader implications (aka impact).

Equipped with foundational knowledge and details about what you offer, your target audience, and your revenue model, you can now plan for the broader implications: impact. Let’s fire up the kitchen!

Task 1: Measure the Increase in Impact.

Of course, one of the first things we should consider in terms of our impact is how to increase it. But if we’re planning strategically and looking for success, we realize that what this means is that we need measurable ways to increase our impact. After all, if we can’t measure it, how do we know if it’s successful?

Consider what you are looking for in quantifiable ways. Are you looking for more signups or service requests, for instance? By optimizing outreach strategies, an organization can measure success by seeing increased signups for their programs. Alternatively, enhancing service quality and broadening service avenues can lead to a notable uptick in service requests, reflecting a wider community engagement and deeper trust in the organization’s offerings.

Task 2: Innovate.

Innovation is defined as “something new that brings value.” Collaborative initiatives, like partnering with influencers or local businesses for themed events or challenges, can attract new audiences and generate buzz.

Think outside the box. Imagine a hair salon hosting a recipe exchange, for example! By integrating technology and community-driven events, nonprofits can create a ripple effect of awareness and action beyond their traditional spheres of influence. Extending your nonprofit’s influence is, after all, a crucial way of increasing its impact.

Task 3: Collaborate.

Admittedly, this relates to the previous task in its ability to increase impact. But more specifically, collaboration means establishing partner relationships with other nonprofits—even broader entities like Higher Ed institutions—to amplify your reach and solidify your organization’s impact within the community. While the innovative partnerships with businesses and influencers might extend your reach in the corporate world, collaborations between nonprofits allow organizations to pool their resources, share expertise, and address challenges that might be insurmountable individually.

For example, a nonprofit focusing on youth empowerment can significantly benefit from a partnership with a local university by gaining access to research resources, student volunteers, or even specialized knowledge from academia that can refine their intervention strategies. Similarly, co-hosted events or programs can garner more attention, including a combined follower base, creating a louder voice for advocacy or awareness.

To increase your impact, consider partnering with Higher Ed institutions or engaging in Co-opetition.[1] Success is all about optimizing resources, whether it’s time, talent, treasure, or most crucially, ATTENTION.

Now, conduct inventory to make sure your foundation matches your plans for impact.

You want to make sure your ingredients match your recipe. No use trying to make eggplant parmesan without tomatoes, after all.

Start with a fundamental inventory of your current resources. A functioning marketing team? Check. Dedicated finance expert? Check. A vacant HR position? Noted. Tools (like consumption chain analysis, for example) can prove invaluable for evaluating your website’s efficacy at reaching its targeted audience.

You should also conduct a review of the organization’s overall structure. This review can be broken down into several parts:

  • Roles: Here, clarity is essential. Everyone should be aware of their job description, chain of command, and the expectations set for them.
  • Goals: Clearly define measurable outcomes for the organization and individual roles. This is also integral to job descriptions.
  • Rules: Strive for necessity, not abundance. Dismiss rules that exist merely out of habit.
  • People: Recognize and cherish external entities that fan your organization’s flames, whether individuals or companies.

This inventory should help you make sure that you have all of the necessary ingredients to be successful in increasing your organizational impact.

Look out! Spills ahead!

In the kitchen, spills happen, especially when there are a lot of different cooks with a number of different areas of expertise. But that doesn’t mean you should go around putting full glasses of milk on the side of busy countertops, so to speak.

Instead, as executive leadership, it’s your job to look out for things that might cause potential spillage. Here are a few things to watch for that can get in the way of your organization’s success:

  • Limited Resources: Success can be hindered by a myriad of challenges. At the forefront are limited resources. Whether it’s a lack of time, the right talent, adequate financing, or the ever-precious commodity of attention, these constraints can impede success.
  • Zombie Projects: The existence of Zombie Projects—initiatives that continually consume resources without yielding tangible benefits—can further strain an already tight budget and distract from impactful endeavors.[2]
  • Scope Creep: The phenomenon of Scope Creep presents a significant roadblock. This pertains to ever-shifting goals or elusive deadlines that consistently get pushed back, leading to inefficiencies, demoralization, and often project abandonment.
  • Unripe Customers: Potential customers who either don’t recognize the need for your product/service or aren’t ready to make a purchase. These individuals or entities either fail to recognize the value or necessity of the services offered or are not in a position to engage at a given moment. Such mismatches can lead to wasted efforts and missed opportunities, further impeding the path to success.

A recipe for a solid strategic plan starts with a success-oriented mindset.

To bring this full circle, revisit the initial question. Define what success looks like for your organization, then create the recipe to achieve it. Remember, a strategic plan is only as good as the foundational understanding that underpins it. Embrace introspection before projection to set your organization up for success!


[1] In co-opetition, organizations that might traditionally be viewed as competitors collaborate for mutual benefit. By joining hands with similar mission-driven entities, nonprofits can optimize the use of time, tap into a shared pool of talent, and even jointly fundraise, maximizing the “treasure” they can direct towards their cause. More than anything, a united front amidst our attention-driven economy (consisting of multiple organizations championing a common cause) can capture public interest more effectively, ensuring the message doesn’t just spread but also resonates deeply within the community.

[2] For more on how to kill of zombie projects, check out this article!

About the Author

Marion Reinson is the executive director of Eating for Your Health, a nonprofit in Princeton, New Jersey that takes nutrition out of the clinic and into the kitchen, where real change happens. Under Reinson, the group educates “eaters” from adolescence through later adult years about how to select and prepare delicious, whole-food meals—without processed ingredients. She works with a variety of community nonprofit and for-profit partners to deliver programs about food and nutrition in an easy-to-consume and non-judgmental manner).

Prior to being appointed executive director, Reinson was a member of EYH’s board of trustees under founder Dorothy Mullen, who started the nonprofit by coordinating shared meal meetings in homes and public spaces. Outside nutrition, Reinson has 20-plus years of experience in marketing and business consulting, designing strategies to meet the wide-ranging needs of businesses at distinct stages and challenges.

With her involvement with Eating for Your Health, Marion soon started gardening more, makes her own sauerkraut, and made gradual changes to cook and eat in a healthier way.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

2 thoughts on “Vision Before Strategy: A Nonprofit’s Guide to Defining Success

  1. Impact (results) is what is most important. If your organization exists to promote literacy, for example, you need to actually increase literacy, not try to increase it. If your organization exists to feed hungry people, you need to provide more people with more food. If your organization exists to end discrimination, you need to eliminate it or at least reduce it. Fighting the good fight is not enough. You need to win the good fight.

  2. Hello,
    Very relevant guidance. most appreciated.
    My NGO was operational for 6 years managing projects for other international NGOs.
    Today, we are domamt for more than 5 years. We would be interested to know how we can get back to serving ways.

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