Quick quiz! What are the mission and vision statements of your nonprofit?

If you don’t have these guiding statements or can’t remember what yours are, keep reading. We’ll talk about what exactly vision and mission statements are, how they differ, and why it’s important for your organization to have them. Don’t worry. We won’t leave off there, we’ll also give a few ideas of how to get started creating both a mission and vision statement for your organization.

Oh! And if you have them, but can’t recall what they are, you’ll want to keep reading too. It might be time to refresh the direction that your organization is heading.

What is a Vision Statement?

A vision statement, simply put, is your organization’s dream. It’s a look into the future at what your organization hopes to become. When your vision is properly understood and utilized, it drives the very purpose of your business. Typically, a vision statement is written with memorable short phrases that are easily understood by all members of your community. Here’s a summary of characteristics that effective vision statements include, inspired by the University of Kansas’ Community Tool Box.

  1. Easy to understand and shared by all stakeholders.
  2. Inclusive of a diverse variety of perspectives.
  3. Inspiring and uplifting to everyone involved.
  4. Easy to communicate. (Think short enough to fit on a t-shirt.)
  5. Challenging yet attainable.

Now that you have an understanding of what a vision statement is, let’s look at a few examples of vision statements that fit these criteria. Here are a few excellent examples:

  1. A future where tobacco is a thing of the past. (Truth Initiative)
  2. A world without Alzheimer’s Disease. (Alzheimer’s Association)
  3. A humane society. (The Humane Society)
  4. A world where everyone has a decent place to live. (Habitat for Humanity)
  5. One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. (Teach for America)

What is a Mission Statement?

While a vision statement is focused on the future, mission statements lay out what your organization will do today. The mission statement is important in that it practically shapes your company’s culture on a daily basis. It’s the core of your business and in a broad sense will drive your day-to-day decisions. If someone were to ask why your company exists, your mission statement should be written in a way that would make it an appropriate answer to the question. Often mission statements are inspirational. This comes about naturally because they are written in response to a hopeful outcome that your organization exists to achieve. In two primary categories, a mission statement should do the following:

  1. Educate. Anyone interested in why your organization exists should learn the what, how, and why of your nonprofit through the mission statement.
  2. Energize. In an optimal way, your mission statement is why your employees work with you, why your donors give, and why volunteers give their time.

Again, it is helpful to look at examples of effective mission statements:

  1. Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities, and hope. (Habitat for Humanity)
  2. Our mission is to eliminate Alzheimer’s disease through the advancement of research; to provide and enhance care and support for all affected; and to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health. (Alzheimer’s Association)
  3. Promoting community health and development by connecting people, ideas, and resources. (Community Tool Box)
  4. As a people of color led collective, Faith Matters Network trains, connects, convenes, and amplifies marginalized people of faith, primarily people of color, to chart a new moral horizon. (Faith Matters Network)

Why is it Important to Have Both?

Now that we have an understanding of vision and mission, it’s easy to see that they go together. Maybe a little like peanut butter and jelly or a pair of mittens. Once you have your future dream (vision), the next step is to make plans of how to make that happen (mission). A dream on its own remains a dream while actions on their own aren’t united under a common umbrella, but merely good deeds done by individuals. Vision and mission serve to both establish a directive framework for your nonprofit and develop a cohesive path.

Let’s Start the Process

Now that your organization understands the value of vision and mission, we offer a few ideas to help get your development process started. You may wonder whether it’s best to develop the mission or vision statement first. There isn’t a set right or wrong answer to this, but in general, companies find it makes sense to define their mission statement first. Once you define what your organization aims to do and how you intend to do that, you’ll be able to move into the bigger picture question of “why” you do what you do. Think of the mission statement as a tool to help shape what your desired input into the world will be.

Regardless of where you start, one of the most important keys to the development process is gathering input from all of your stakeholders. This means holding meetings, interviews, informal discussions, and more with everyone in your company from executives to entry-level employees. You’ll want to chat with everyone because the most successful companies have learned that mission and vision statements created in isolated boardrooms are not as effective as those created with input from all levels of the organization.

Of course, management will need to support the overall direction for important decisions, but your customer-facing employees and volunteers will be the ones who practically implement the efforts of mission and vision. When everyone understands the target you’re working toward, you’ll have an easier time of reaching it.

Establish Your Mission Statement

As you hold meetings with employees and stakeholders, be sure to ask thoughtful and even abstract questions. In order to end up with a well-written mission statement, Chris Bart, a retired strategy and governance professor from McMaster University, suggests you need three components:

  1. The key market the business is in.
  2. The contribution being made, also known as the “what” of the business. (What do you offer and how does it better society?)
  3. Distinguishing factors between your solutions and others who are doing similar things. (Why should the market buy from you and not the competition?)

If you don’t know these answers, or don’t have agreement throughout the company, be sure to ask key introspective questions to understand these answers before going further.

As you write a mission statement for your nonprofit, keep in mind that you are creating something intended to make sense for your work today, and also be applicable next year. It’s hard to make predictions about what you’ll be focused on in the future, but try to nail down wording that is both broad and unique. At the same time that you’re making plans for the future, don’t become paralyzed with a fear of being married to this statement forever. It’s perfectly reasonable to revisit and perhaps update your mission statement periodically.

The mission statement ultimately should make a clear connection to the what and why of your organization. It should also be brief: 25 words or less is best.

Establish Your Vision Statement

When creating a vision statement, think of your aspirations. What is the fundamental reason your nonprofit exists? If you’ve already created a mission statement, use that and imagine what the world would look like in the next 5-10 years if your mission was fulfilled. Business News Daily quoted Shannon DeJong, owner of brand agency House of Who, in regards to vision statements. “Vision statements should demonstrate how the world will be different now that your business is in it.” Consider not only what difference you will make, but what aspect of reaching this vision sets your nonprofit apart. Be sure to incorporate your passion.

In practical terms, create a succinct sentence using clear language in the present tense. Be inspirational while at the same time remaining aligned with your organization’s goals.

How to Tell if it’s Time for a Refresh

In a static world, your organization could operate while focused on a specific mission and vision for years. However, in reality, things change. From shifts in culture to evolving needs to redirections in passions and interests of leadership, the important work of your nonprofit will at the minimum need to be reevaluated for relevance on a regular basis. In fact, if your organization is experiencing miscommunication, low motivation, or lack of focus, you may want to step back and regroup on a bigger-picture scale now.

Above all, remember your statements aren’t set in stone. While they’re important for providing direction for your company, the world evolves and your nonprofit will find the most success if you are prepared to shift when the signs indicate it’s the right time.

By Angie Reedy