Not sure what a BHAG (bee-hag) is? Don’t have one?

BHAG is an acronym developed by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. It stands for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. And your organization should have one.

In fact, not only should you have a BHAG, but it should drive your organization forward.

[NOTE: You might want a personal BHAG too!  And this would be a great time to think about what your very own big goal for the next year is!]

Your BHAG Should Power Your Organization

There’s nothing quite like a big, audacious goal to inspire you, your board and your staff to do everything they can to make an even bigger difference in the world you serve.

And yet, in all of my years in nonprofit work, no development director has introduced her organization to me by saying:

“Andrea, our organization is driving hard toward a big, audacious goal that will make a huge difference in the community we serve. We’re passionate about it and every day we remind ourselves of where we are headed and why it matters.”

That would get my attention! It would be an organization I’d want to work with!

But sadly, most organizations relegate even their mission statement to obscurity, often tucking it away on a back page of their website. And when you do find the mission statement, it’s often bland and anodyne.

Does Your Organization Have an Idea Worthy of a Big Gift?

I was reminded recently of the importance of a big idea when rereading a piece by Jerry Panas in which he recounted a story of a donor who, when asked why he gave a million dollars to a local museum rather than to his college, said:

“The reason I gave a million dollars to the museum and only $100,000 to the college is because the college never gave me a million-dollar idea.”

The museum that donor gave his big gift to had a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that inspired him to give a Big Hairy Audacious Gift.

Jet-Propel Your Organization with a Bold Vision

Early in my fundraising career, I was fortunate work with John Synodinos, a visionary man, who understood the power of a big idea. He inspired both individuals like me as well as the organizations he worked with to have the courage to THINK BIG.

I watched John inspire organization after organization to coalesce around a bold vision. And when they did, that powerful vision, combined with a practical plan, would inspire strong leadership, attract influential board members, unify staff, and motivate donors to give more.

John believed in the power of bold ideas to inspire people and he taught me well. So to this day, nearly 40 years later, I am motivated by bold ideas.

What is your BHAG for the new year?

Do you let yourself think big enough? Does your organization’s leadership have the courage to think audaciously?

As you enter the new year, perhaps it’s time to coalesce the spirit of your organization around something powerfully important.

To create a big idea that catches the imagination, you need a clear and compelling idea to serve as a focal point of your efforts. It’s got to be easy to grasp and take little explanation to understand.

Try the “Headline Exercise”

You might use the “Headline Exercise” from Train Your Board (And Everyone Else) to Raise Money I wrote with Andy Robinson to get the process going. It goes like this:

Pull together a small group of board members and staff. Ask them to imagine that five years from now, they are reading an article about one of your organization’s most impressive programs. The article summarizes the tremendous accomplishments of your organization’s work and the resulting changes in your community.

Ask each person to take 2 minutes to write a headline for the imagined article that reflects the accomplishment but DOES NOT mention the name of your organization. (Here’s an example: Teen Pregnancy Rate Cut in Half in Mott Haven Neighborhood.)

Organize the participants into small groups of three and, working in their small groups, have them share their headlines and select the most exciting one.

Post the winning headline from each group. Discuss with the entire group what makes the headlines powerful.

Then ask people which of the headlines captures the organization’s big goal for the next five years. And if none do, what headline could do that effectively?

With that simple exercise — perhaps done with more than one group — you can get people thinking more boldly and inspire them by the potential of their work.

BHAGs are a Powerful Beginning

But BHAGs are just the start. Simple statements by themselves, no matter how compelling, just get dusty in your drawer or tucked away on a back page of your website. Big, powerful ideas must be supported by ambitious plans and specific timetables.

With a visionary idea, a clear plan and a specific timeline, you can inspire real growth.

A Big Idea with a Credible Plan Can Serve as the Basis for a Capacity Campaign

Though most people think about capital campaigns for funding new buildings or renovations, they can also be used as capacity campaigns to fund growth, particularly when the goals and plans are ambitious and inspiring.

Start your new year by articulating a BHAG and let that big idea inspire your growth.

Like my mentor showed me in organization after organization, bold ideas, when combined with clear plans and timelines inspire effective action and outsized generosity.

And when they are combined with sound fundraising practices, the potential is vast.

1 Comment

  1. Kerry Johnson

    What a great idea for our project. We are currently starting our fundraising for a new community centre in our area in Southwest Nova Scotia where 33% of the children live in poverty.

    Our big ambitious goal is to raise 1.5 million to complete the construction and setup the programming in the place once complete.

    This is a huge ask. We are looking for ways to reach our goal. This would be a good start. Question: any other ideas would be greatly appreciated, thank you!


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