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Make No Small Plans!

Here in Chicago, we love Daniel Burnham, the renowned city planner who envisioned and built the 1893 World’s Fair among other notable accomplishments. We love his ability to dream big. As he said:

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir people's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency.

This maxim can be found inscribed on various buildings around town, sited in countless histories, often quoted in the Chicago Tribune, and even found on tourist-friendly tchotchkes.

While Burnham spoke these words in 1910, their message should be carried on by any nonprofit who aspires to make an impact—whether through an audacious capital campaign or a bold vision for the future captured in a new strategic plan.

But, it can't end with a vision. A Japanese proverb admonishes us: "Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare."

Yet, while the Japanese maxim encourages action, and Burnham could wax eloquent about the power of those big dreams, many nonprofits today are languishing because they have lost their dream… their vision…

Donors, volunteers, participants, board members….no one wants to be part of an organization that aspires to “do the same thing we did last year, but 5% more,” yet that is how many nonprofits approach their strategic planning or annual planning process. (Why?!)

As nonprofit leaders, we are entrusted with some of the most exciting and important work of our generation: we are change agents who are improving the quality of people’s lives, saving the earth, providing life-giving health solutions, reimaging how to help youth reach their potential regardless of zip code, and countless other thrilling activities.

So, why are our vision statements so dry? Why do our strategic plans make everyone yawn?

Because we have forgotten to set aside time to dream big.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras called it a BHAG: Big Hairy Audacious Goal. Walt Disney’s mantra was “Dream. Believe. Dare.” Martin Luther King, Jr. also “had a dream” that we are still working towards.

Take five minutes today and dream with your colleague, your team, or your board. What dreams do you have for your nonprofit’s impact? How will you “Make big plans” for the future? What can you imagine for 2022? Our communities and our world are counting on you.

Photo Credit: The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Chromolithograph with gouache after a painting by JR Key, 1894. Created 1894. Source: Wellcome Collection. Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0),

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