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Vision is one of the Four Keys to Nonprofit Leadership by Mark Roithmayr

Last month we spoke about the Four Keys to Nonprofit Leadership namely, Vision, Constituencies, Individuals and Implementation—how each is uniquely entwined in our industry.  This blog will begin a series of four monthly posts, each focusing on one of the key elements.  Today we start with vision.


I’m not that smart! I remember the first time I was in a position that demanded I had a vision and being terrified.  I was 29-years-old and the newly appointed Vice President of Communications for the March of Dimes.  Surely I thought someone much older and wiser than me should come up with a vision!  At the time I was in charge of a brand where 9 out of 10 Americans knew our name but less than 3 out of 10 actually knew what the March of Dimes did.  We were way too busy putting together public service campaigns, contacting the media, writing press releases, producing videos, creating fundraising materials—the list was endless—who had the time to come up with a vision!?

The question of vision was first proposed by one of my direct reports.  I soon found the same question coming out of the Board room, on visits to local Chapters, from my peers.  Everywhere I turned someone seemed to be asking ‘What’s the vision?’ and all I kept thinking was—if we all just do the work, won’t the vision take care of itself?

I posed that question to a wonderful mentor who so understood the nonprofit landscape.  He helped me see that leadership in nonprofits without vision is like asking people to run a race without knowing the distance.  He talked about why a vision is necessary to motivate and sustain staff (underpaid) and volunteers (work for free). And while the responsibility for a vision existed with me, the answers I was looking for would come from the very staff and volunteers I was looking to motivate.

It was a lesson in humility and constituencies.  I began to speak and listen to the staff and volunteers in a new way.  Their words, their dreams, their hopes, their fears.  No one person had the vision, but discussing widely and listening carefully, there were dots to connect. The vision was there all the time and it was my responsibility to hear it, define it and steward it forward.

It’s the headline stupid!  In the end, the vision was no more complicated than the headline to my March of Dimes elevator speech.  Something short, simple, to the point, enough to get someone’s attention if they cared to ask.  Interestingly, today whenever anyone asks what the litmus test of a good vision is, I always say “would it work as the opening line of your elevator speech?” But I also know behind that vision is a lot of probing of key constituencies, getting their opinions and a lot of listening.  There is also much work to be done once the vision is stated communicating the details and work behind the headline to the very constituencies and individuals who helped create it in the first place.

So here is the vision I helped create working with the staff, volunteers, scientists, students, corporate executives, who made up the March of Dimes a quarter century ago.  Turns out the best place to start was answering the original question, “I know the March of Dimes name but what is it they actually do?”

At the March of Dimes, we save babies lives.

 Next month the leadership topic we will be Constituencies.  Talk to you then…

More on Mark Roithmayr

Mark currently serves as Chief Relationship Officer for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. In his role, he provides strategic direction and overall leadership running the Field including the management and fiscal performance of the 56 Chapters as well as the development of key volunteer relationships on behalf of the society locally, regionally and nationally. Prior to the current position, served as Chief Development officer overseeing the Society’s donor development activities including major gifts, foundation giving, planned giving, corporate giving and outright/restricted gifts. Oversee all donor development activities at the national and chapter levels for LLS–the $300 million leader in blood cancer research.

Before LLS, Mark worked as first full time President of Autism Speaks–the largest autism science and advocacy organization in the world today. Merged three organizations into AS in 20 months. Raised over $60 million annually. Invested over $170 million into autism research. Passed national and state bills increasing funds for autism science while reducing out of pocket expenses for families. Helped make “autism” a household word through award winning Ad Council Campaign and the United Nation’s declaration of World Autism Awareness in perpetuity on April 2nd.

Prior to AS, Mark worked 20 years at the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation in a series of progressive jobs. Turned around ailing flagship chapter doubling revenue. Oversaw all national fundraising leading the Foundation to record years in it’s signature March for Babies event. Earlier in career served as the Foundation’s head of communications. Prior to March of Dimes worked as Director of Public Relations at the New York Lung Association.