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Do mission and vision statements matter?

You may have heard (or thought):

Does it really matter what our mission and vision are as long as we’re doing good work?

Mission and vision statements are fluff and a couple of months after the retreat, no one will remember what they are, anyway.

Last time we revised our mission and vision, it was a lot of work and I’m not sure it made a difference in the end. It didn’t change our decision-making.

You’re right. And, you’re wrong. We are reminded of a quote: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.” We think that is true when it comes to mission and vision statements. The process can be tedious and the outcome uninspired. Or it can be a journey of discovery and affirmation that focuses the direction of your organization and inspires your team.

Let’s start by defining what they are.

Mission and vision statements are distinct concepts and serve different purposes.

A vision statement is the change you want to see in the world. Note the word “see.” It’s called a vision because you can see it. Consider Oceana’s vision statement, “…oceans as rich, healthy, and abundant as they once were.” Or Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass, “The global gathering place where lives are enriched and transformed by glass.” You can close your eyes and envision what that looks like. And you use that image to lead you to your mission.

A mission statement is what your organization is doing to make the vision a reality. Consider this simple formula.

Mission statement = whose needs + what action + to what end

Oceana’s mission makes clear how they achieve their vision: “…advocate for policy changes by governments and corporations…” Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass’s mission is “…extraordinary glass experiences to spark fun, kindle creativity, and illuminate learning for all.”

It makes it clear how they are going to create the world that they envision.

Why mission and vision statements don’t work.

They are seen as items to be checked off a list. Creating or refreshing mission and vision statements are typical components of a strategic plan. When it’s time to create the next strategic plan, perhaps this must fit into an already busy schedule. It’s tempting to look at them as “the stuff that has to get done” to complete the plan. It may lead to giving the mission and vision short shrift.

They’re difficult to do well. People may underestimate how challenging it is to create meaningful mission and vision statements. This is creative work, and the muse is not always available. (This is why it can be a good idea to have an outside facilitator to provide a creative spark and help the team think differently). It is further complicated because these statements are almost always the product of a committee. When you combine something as important as mission and vision with the dynamics of team decision-making, it takes patience and stick-to-itiveness. And many committee members are volunteers with “day jobs.”

They can take longer than you think. Imagine that you have from 9-11 a.m. on the retreat agenda to focus on mission and vision. You do some great work laying the foundation for this important work, but they’re likely far from done. Mission and vision statements need time to marinate. And for staff and board members with many other commitments, it’s tempting to try to get them done in the time allotted. It’s not unusual to complete the statements over the course of a few meetings, but we have seen them take months. At Benefactor Group, it took us almost a year to settle on our vision. And it ended up being three words!

People don’t have a good sense for what they are. There is no regulatory body that defines mission and vision. You can read two different books and come away with distinctly different ideas for what they are and what makes a good mission or vision statement. If there is not a clear destination, it doesn’t matter how fast you drive. You aren’t going to get there.

Why they do work.

They focus the sunshine. The programs and people that make up your nonprofit organization are the essence of it. That is what matters. It’s like the sun: without it, life as we know it would cease to exist. Yet, for all its power, you might get a nasty sunburn if you stay out in it too long. But if you focus it, then you can cut steel. That is the power of mission and vision statements. They provide a focus and a concentration that elevates the work you do.

They unify. The act of getting the leaders of your organization together and thinking about your mission and vision is powerful if done well. We have seen many times the power of taking the journey together. In the beginning it’s messy, people may respectfully disagree about the direction of the organization, and quibble about the words. But, as they stick with it, the team comes together. In the end, the total is greater than the sum of the parts. We’ve seen it work best when a facilitator leads the process. Someone who knows what makes an effective mission and vision, knows the “rules,” and keeps the team on track—pushing back when it’s needed and pulling ideas out when it’s right.

They are a litmus test for all you do. Well-constructed mission and vision statements provide guidance. Think of them as a way to test your strategic plan. Are you able to deliver the mission and vision with the strategic priorities you have defined? If not, your plan is not complete. Do all strategic priorities connect to the mission and vision? If not, then perhaps they are not really priorities.

They can improve efficiency. This one may seem counterintuitive. You know those days where you worked all day, were very busy, but at the end you think, “What did I accomplish today?” That can be an indication of working reactively. When the mission and vision are clear, and the strategic plan is a derivative of them, this can help you answer the deceptively simple question, “Where should I spend my time?”

They inspire. The work you do to craft mission and vision can have a magical effect. It unifies and focuses the organization on the goals essential to success. Without this “north star,” the day-to-day work may become routine and no longer energizing or fun. When you are having a rough day, the mission and vision statements can remind you why you do this work.

How do you create them?

For more information about how to create a strategic plan (and a sample visioning exercise), check out Benefactor Group’s Go-to Guide for Nonprofit Strategic Planning.

Your Go-to Guide For Nonprofit Strategic Planning

Access the Strategic Planning eBook

Have questions or comments? Reach out. Contact Benefactor Group via phone (614-437-3000) or email me ([email protected]) or Kaitlyn ([email protected]).

Steve’s expertise lies in system selections, project leadership, strategic business intelligence, and ensuring that stakeholders are served by technology. He is also a certified Project Management Professional (PMP) and a frequent presenter at conferences. Steve enjoys helping nonprofits bridge the gap between technology and people. He approaches his work with two primary drivers: do excellent work and care about the clients.

has a background in grant writing, grant and program management, and nonprofit administration.

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