The Vision Thing

The past few months have seen a dozen or so would-be presidents appear in my community of Concord, New Hampshire. If you haven’t experienced the New Hampshire Primary, I can promise you that it’s many things at once: quirky, fascinating, inspiring, fun, tedious, exciting, frustrating, and memorable. In many ways, the candidates – who are doing something very difficult, which is running for president – are still getting their act together, and we’re the audience for their rehearsals. They are honing their stump speeches and learning how to answer questions on the fly. Frankly, they’re not always good at it.

As I’ve heard the candidates field voters’ questions and analyzed which answers resonate and which ones don’t, it occurs to me that there are some parallels between how politicians and nonprofits make their case. The least effective politicians and charitable leaders spend too much time talking about themselves and telling not-always-interesting stories about what they have done in the past. The best of them put forth a clear and compelling vision of the future that engages the listener. They are aspirational. They connect.

What makes for bad communication? A failure to create the big picture. I’ve noticed that politicians too often dive into describing their policies and personal history without first providing context and vision.

At a recent house party, someone asked a candidate who has long been a U.S. Senator about early childhood education, and she responded by talking about a bill she had co-sponsored with Senator So-and-So back in 2016. She was so eager to show off her bona fides as a proven supporter of early childhood education that she failed to frame the issue by first saying something like, “I firmly believe that access to high-quality and affordable early childhood education is a vital priority for children, families, and the country overall. It’s too hard for families to find quality childcare. They’re paying too much. That’s huge pressure on families, and it’s hurting everyone, including the parents’ employers. This has to change. We can do better.”

A few days later, at the local craft brewery, a voter asked another candidate about how he would help people with disabilities. He responded by talking about how, when he was governor of a state 2,000 miles away, he eliminated the waiting list for services for people with disabilities. He added that his campaign only held events at places that were accessible. (In fact, it’s not clear that the brewery where he was speaking that day was itself accessible.) In the process, he missed the chance to say upfront, “I firmly believe that each and every American deserves respect and opportunity. That means that men, women, and children with disabilities absolutely should have every possible barrier removed and every service provided to allow them to be productive, healthy, fully engaged, and equal citizens.”

These candidates missed the chance to paint the big picture. They forgot to create context. They forgot to inspire.

In case you’re wondering, no, I’m not running for president. I have too much fun doing what I’m doing, and, well, I’m not the slightest bit qualified. But, dammit, I sure would have better first lines in answering questions than many of the candidates who pass through New Hampshire on their way (they think) to the White House. And maybe that’s because I’ve worked so long with nonprofit organizations. Charitable organizations think hard about how they communicate their vision, and they’d soon go out of business if they sold themselves like some candidates do.

For example, if you’re representing a nonprofit performing arts center, you don’t begin by saying to donors, “Help us so we can have 100 shows this year, instead of 90,” even though adding performances might be really important for the financial health of the organization. You also don’t say, “Help us balance our budget and pay our staff better,” though both of those are very important internal goals, and they might understandably be preoccupations for the organization’s leadership. No, instead you say: “Through our theater, we help create community – a community that includes everyone. We bring the magic and wonder of the performing arts to all people, including children from families with few resources, veterans, people with disabilities, and seniors. We’re the creative heartbeat of the community.”

If you’re a nonprofit serving neglected and abused children, you don’t introduce your work by saying, “We had a very successful year. The number of visits by our social workers went up 17%. But our people are stretched to the breaking point.” No, you say: “Every child in this country should have the chance to grow up without fear of violence and abuse and hunger. Our mission is to help each and every child dealing with these issues. And, tragically, the number of children needing our services has risen steadily in the last five years, and we’ve had to expand our services to reach them all.”

The most impressive presidential stump speech I’ve heard so far this season was from a candidate who, after thanking the hosts and telling the requisite joke, said: “My goals as president are ambitious. I want us to the smartest nation, the healthiest nation, the fairest nation, and the most prosperous nation.” Wow – that was clear and easy to remember. And then the candidate described policy initiatives for each of those four goals. We heard a bit about the candidate’s background, of course, but mostly the talk was about where the nation should go, and the policy priorities to get there.

It seems simple, but it’s not. Presidential candidates and nonprofit leaders tend to talk too long, they tend to talk too much about themselves, and they often know so much about the subject matter that they share details that are fundamentally uninteresting or confusing for many listeners. By contrast, the candidates and the charitable organizations that communicate effectively put forth a compelling vision, connect emotionally with the listener, and make people feel good about supporting the cause. They answer some simple questions: Why should I care about you? What problems are you trying to solve? Why should I want you to be successful? How can I help? And: Where do I send the check?

Copyright Alan Cantor 2019. All rights reserved.

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12 Comments. Leave new

  • Rick Swanson
    April 2, 2019 12:04 pm


  • Oliver B Spencer
    April 2, 2019 12:40 pm

    Great blog with such simple and accurate points. Yet so many miss the boat and quickly lose their momentum. I drew several comparisons to when I was commanding Marine units. I always tried to have my XO and SgtMaj standing in the back to give me the “cutoff or move on” sign. Do you need someone to make copies and send these out to all the candidates so they can improve and beat our current CINC?

    • Alan Cantor
      April 2, 2019 6:53 pm

      I love your comparison to the Marines, Oliver. It’s funny: there are always aides at these candidate events saying, “One more question, Senator!” But they never say or hint, “You’re really sounding like a bag of warm wind there! Cut it short!” There’s a power imbalance, of course, and the young aide has a low place in the pecking order. I’m guessing that in politics, as in every business, having smart people around you who are empowered to keep you from making a fool of yourself is a key to success.

  • Terri Wiltse - NHSCOT
    April 2, 2019 3:08 pm

    Alan, thanks for this. I’m going to share this with our board next month when we talk about elevator speeches. It’s wonderful that you included better responses. I am reminded of being a new parent and reading parenting advise in magazines. The advise often told us what not to do, but didn’t share what would be better to do. It is very clear why your suggested responses are better. Our board will understand.

  • Adam Creighton
    April 2, 2019 6:26 pm

    The other big similarity between candidates and nonprofits is that both campaigns and missions run on donations–although donations to the latter seem to be generally tax deductible, while contributions to the former…not so much (with some important exceptions). They’re not just stumping for votes, but hustling for donations as well.

    I want to see more vision from candidates as well, but I’m as demanding as a foundation with an open RFP. “What’s your sustainability plan, Candidate X? How will you monitor outcomes for your proposed policies?”

    My candidates rarely make it to the general. But you make living in New Hampshire for the primary sound fun!

    • Alan Cantor
      April 2, 2019 6:56 pm

      Well, you’re right, Adam. What I liked about the Candidate I described at the end is what followed: specific policy initiatives that can be slotted into each category. Again, the candidate talked about the country being the smartest, healthiest, fairest, and most prosperous. Then the candidate spoke about universal pre-K education and supporting community colleges (smartest), extending medicare and creating a public option (healthiest), immigration and prison reform (fairest), and increased minimum wage (most prosperous). Vision plus specifics.

  • Teresa Troy
    April 2, 2019 9:03 pm

    Makes me sorry we’re not in NH to hear the candidates, Al, but we’ll be back in a few weeks. Loved reading your post. A good lesson for anyone trying to connect with their audience.

  • Raymond Lanza-Weil
    April 5, 2019 2:50 pm

    Good points, Al. Thank you for the excellent examples! I disagree on one point, however: you ARE qualified to run!

    • Ha! I suppose the bar has been lowered considerably the last couple of years, Raymond. That said, if nominated, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve! 🙂

  • This blog is a GREAT reminder to make people want to hear more, both about the issue and how you are going to solve it. Excellent examples to back up your point!


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