How a Legacy Institution Used a Start-Up Framework to Shift its Mission, Vision and Values

By Lisa Lepson

I didn’t know what it would be like to work at a 120+year old institution, after decades spent only at early-stage start-up organizations, for-profit and non. It was an entirely new experience to walk into a development role with thousands of donors already committed to our cause, and the name of our organization instantly recognizable to hundreds of thousands more. Of course the strategies and tactics would be wildly different from a start-up operation, I thought, where the prospect list often consists of the founder’s mom, her third-grade Hebrew teacher, and a college friend with a trust fund.

It turns out that the building blocks of a start-up development operation are the very same as a legacy organization – before all else: clearly communicating your mission, value and impact. Although the Forward had been around for many years, it only became a 501(c)(3) in 2010, and needed to refine the articulation of its mission, and create a formal vision and values to align the organization, serve as a cornerstone of our communications, and as a basis for strategic decision making.

The Process

Over the past 20 years, I’ve wrestled with the mission/vision/values of dozens of start up nonprofits as an executive, a board member and a coach. Additionally, I had recently been a committed participant to a thorough process at my former employer, UpStart, which provides entrepreneurial tools and resources to those who are making change in the Jewish world. All of these experiences highly informed our thinking here at The Forward, the nation’s leading Jewish journalism outlet.

Working with Dara Lehon, a marketing consultant, we solicited input from all staff at our off-site retreat in May 2019, and from the board of directors at a meeting the same month. Following these wide brainstorms, we put together a task force including representatives from each department at The Forward, and members of our board and association, The Forward’s broader governing body.

After a meeting or two, we realized that board members had never had the opportunity to sit down with reporters, editors, marketing directors, and archivists and share what inspires them about The Forward. Board members walked away moved by the journalists’ commitment and integrity, and staff members left feeling heard and with a more nuanced understanding of leadership.

Over the course of four months, we analyzed themes and language used in past communications with employees, readers and donors; we discussed the essential what, how and whys; and came up with a draft that was approved in November and published in December. We were thrilled to have spent minimal dollars (in true start-up style) and have completed a collaborative process in less than six months.

Our Takeaways From This Process:

  • The importance of the vision: At an institution that has been doing what we are doing for so long, with committed and devoted staff, the mission was a matter of wordsmithing. We all agreed that we were here to inform on pressing issues, highlight important perspectives, preserve the storied history. All involved had clear ideas and passion around this mission, but some struggled at first with elevating our collective thinking to the big whys? What happens when the public is informed? We present different views – so what? A vision asks a group of people to come to consensus on the world they want to see – the world we hope our work is helping make real.

Some participants in the process – journalists, business people, pragmatists – found it challenging or uncomfortable to frame a vision beyond the doors of The Forward, for the entire community. Over the course of the months involved, and in-depth discussions of the purpose of our work, we found consensus on the “so what?” And by doing so, uncovered further inspiration and alignment.

  • The synergy of values: Although the Forward had never codified company or brand values, the workshops revealed a quick and comfortable consensus on this piece. When asked to write down the values the Forward stood for, stakeholders at all levels reflected key themes – integrity, courage or fearlessness, accountability, and love of Jewish culture and Yiddish language, which we ended up calling Yiddishkeit. Through all the wordsmithing of the mission, and the wrestling with the big why, we found the values were inherent to how each of us approached the work.
  • Perhaps most importantly: The application goes beyond what we ever thought possible: We understand that the reason for conducting this process was to effectively communicate internally and externally what the Forward does, why we do it, and how we do it. We hoped that it would assist us in our everyday work, and yet, we were blown away when we realized how often and how critical the application of our vision, mission and values actually were. Staff members throughout the organization are using the values as barometers for prioritization. Strategic discussions recall our “big whys,” our vision, and decisions are being made to align specifically with them.

Strong organizational practices used for building early stage organizations turned out to be just that – strong organizational practices that could help even one of the oldest organizations around. The Forward has undergone a lot of change; Reconfirming our mission, while letting go of certain language, was an exercise that allowed stakeholders to recommit to essential values and activities, while embracing collaborative process and change.

As a digitally-focused publication, innovation is essential to our DNA – we continue to rely on start-up methodology, especially the idea of piloting, iterating and learning as we go. Combining start-up processes with a legacy institution isn’t always easy, but it’s surely the only way to continue to thrive.

Lisa Lepson is VP of Development, The Forward.