How can you create and use your vision, mission, and values?
Clear vision, mission, and values are essential to establishing and reinforcing your brand. Farra Trompeter, co-director, and Ryan Gerhardt, senior copywriter, explore how your vision, mission, and values can help provide clarity and build stronger, lasting connections with your audiences.
Farra Trompeter: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. This is Farra Trompeter, co-director and member-owner of Big Duck. Clear vision, mission, and values are the bedrock to strong nonprofit organizations and their brands. In today’s episode, I’m talking with Ryan Gerhardt about how you can create and use your vision, mission, and values.
Farra Trompeter: Let me tell you a little bit about Ryan. Ryan, who uses he/him pronouns, is a senior copywriter and member-owner at Big Duck, having joined our team in early 2020. Ryan provides an engaging and informative writing style that reinforces the voice behind any project ranging from names and taglines to messaging and campaigns. Before Big Duck, he honed his communication skills across many applications from book publishing and writing articles for online media outlets to copywriting work in the agency world and in-house marketing for the Nantucket Film Festival. Ryan’s been on the podcast before talking about embracing the challenges of changing your name and examining different structures for taglines. Ryan, welcome back.
Ryan Gerhardt: Thanks, Farra. Good to be back.
Farra Trompeter: All right. Well, let’s zoom all the way out. Why are vision, mission, and values so critical to who an organization is?
Ryan Gerhardt: I think, at Big Duck when we’re talking about vision, mission, and values, the thing that is so critical is that they help nonprofits reflect a deeper and more sustainable focus or drive behind what they’re doing. They give people something to hold onto that’s beyond an immediate action. Something that goes a little bit deeper than, “Hey, this is our X, Y, Z issue.” And so, in that way, they’re able to offer a first real piece of substance or something that’s behind the brand or organization that’s more than a name or a logo or something that’s catchy.
Farra Trompeter: Now, I know a lot of people have different ideas for what each of these tools is meant to do, and I’m wondering, Ryan, if you could just provide us with a definition or a description for vision, mission, and values.
Ryan Gerhardt: Absolutely. So, we tend to lump vision, mission, and values together because they each do something that plays a little bit off from the other. When we’re talking about a vision statement, you know, we’re talking about that articulation of the better world you’re working to help achieve. That picture of the future that’s often idealistic and motivating something that we might not be super close to now, but we really want to get to. And at Big Duck, we’d like to think of those in terms of four different levels. Organizations often have a vision, potentially, for the world or for, maybe, a group of people, maybe it’s for the specific field that they’re working in, or in some cases, it’s even a vision for their actual nonprofit alone. And so this, again, works really closely with the other pieces because if your vision is that idealistic future you’re working toward, your mission statement helps to explain to folks how your organization will actually achieve your vision. What are the things you’re actually doing?
Ryan Gerhardt: And when we’re talking about creating a mission statement, there are really five main things we think about. Can this be reflective of our brand strategy pieces? How can we make this super clear, free of jargon? Keep it short, keep it concise. And then just as differentiating and active as it can possibly be. So those are the two real heavy hitters, your vision and mission, you hear most often spoken about, but values are a really important third piece to that because they start to articulate what are the key beliefs and philosophies that are actually guiding this work you’re doing. And so this goes both internally and externally, you’re starting to identify and live up to core values in a way that is really critical and motivating to these relationships you’re building with your key audiences.
Farra Trompeter: Yeah, it makes me think, as you’re talking in some ways, the vision is the why, the mission is the what, and the values are the how.
Ryan Gerhardt: Absolutely.
Farra Trompeter: When people think about branding, I think most of them immediately think of an organization’s name or its logo, or maybe they go to the elevator pitch or its website, but in the brandraising framework, and for those of you who may have not heard that term before and may be new to the world of Big Duck, brandraising comes from a book that Sarah Durham, our founder, wrote several years ago. And in the book, there’s a framework that we still use at Big Duck, we’ll link to it in the show notes, you can see it on our website at bigduck.com/brands. In that book and in the framework, vision, mission, and values are actually at the top of the pyramid at what we call the organizational level of the brand. Then it follows that in the identity level of the brand, we look at the verbal identities such as the vision, mission, and values in writing.
Farra Trompeter: So at the top, we think about the concepts of vision, mission, and values before we even can get into “What are the goals for the brand? Who are the most important audiences? What do we want those audiences to think and feel about us?” Because we can’t develop direction for the brand if we don’t have direction for the organization. So once we’re clear on what an organization’s trying to do, why it exists, how it goes about its work, we can then think about who are the most important people that really need to understand and connect to this organization through its communications, and again, what do we want those people to think and feel about us or the concepts of positioning and personality, which we often call brand strategy. So, Ryan, I’m curious, when we think about the written version of vision, mission, and values, how can we use those to reinforce brand strategy, and how can they help us build strong connections with an organization’s many audiences?
Ryan Gerhardt: You did touch on this a moment ago, actually, when we’re collectively thinking about the vision, mission, and values statements as a unit, in part, they’re able to help build this strong connection by providing that clarity. In very simple and accessible language, a very clear way, they are starting to let folks know different pieces of information around the organization’s key pieces. “What are we doing and why? How are we creating these lasting impressions and connections that go beyond those top-level feelings or identifiers?”
Ryan Gerhardt: With the vision, mission, and values, if we’re starting to let people know, “This is what we see,” then we can figure out, “Okay, these are the key audiences that need to know what we’re working toward in terms of this future.” If we’re figuring out, “This is how we’re going to do it,” that’ll help figure out, “Okay, these are the goals that we need our communications to do.” If we know what the “how” is and the “why” is, it pretty clearly lays out for the organization some things that they need to start checking off in order to take one step now and again to reach that. So again, it really is a clarity moment to get everyone on the same page, both internally as well as your closest audience is externally.
Farra Trompeter: Great. I’d love to shift into actually talking about how the written version of vision, mission, and values get created. I’ve seen them developed amongst a small group of senior staff and board members in a traditional strategic planning process to organizations conducting a lot of research to surface ideas from their community to really understand what are the concepts that should be represented in who we are, what we do and how we do it, and why it matters. What are some of the things an organization should consider when coming up with the concepts or literal expressions of their vision, mission, and values?
Ryan Gerhardt: Yeah, I think the different approaches that you laid out all have different merits. I think the main thing folks should keep in mind is that no matter which approach you take, there are shortcomings to each, and it’s about balancing what is the bigger advantage versus what is the bigger disadvantage. So, for example, when you’re crafting statements with a group of board members or maybe a select group of senior staff, sometimes this can be as many as a dozen people or more, it’s a great way to build internal buy-in, absolutely. It’s a great way to maybe hit on some of the bigger key ideas that people outside will not know, But at the same time, it’s not always the best way to create the clearest external statements. We often find that in those scenarios, you can run into a “too many cooks in the kitchen” where, because everyone has a good idea and they want to get them all in there, you have more of a collection of thoughts than you do clear, cohesive statements. And that makes it really tough because all of your audiences, no matter who they are, should be able to come away with the same general idea of what you’re talking about when they read your vision, mission, and values. So the language needs to be simple, needs to be really reflective of the folks you’re trying to reach, and that’s not always the case when you’re exclusively pulling from board members and senior staff. On the flip side of that, no one person alone, also, should or could really take on the responsibility of writing these statements in a vacuum.
Ryan Gerhardt: I think to your point before of, you know, maybe we can do a survey, pull in some ideas from outside, I think there’s often a happy medium where if you have a larger group of folks, whether it’s staff or maybe other types of stakeholders, board, whatever happens to be, you can use that larger group of folks to really survey and pull those key ideas, create the roadmap for where you want the statements to go. Start to ask yourselves, “Why does the organization exist” or, you know, “what are we really doing here? How are we going to get there?” And then maybe narrow it down, have one or two folks from there, take all the core ideas, figure out where there is overlap, and work on expressing the ones that rise to the top of the most. Because again, you’re not going to be able to capture everything, but if you start to recognize, “Hey, there are two or three ideas that were coming from the larger group that really align with the vision, or there are three or four clear values that show up,” again, those are the things that we’re going to want to focus on the most and elevate, and anything else that gets offered up, you can find just different opportunities to weave that in in other parts of your messaging, because these are great pieces, but you know, again, never going to be able to do everything.
Farra Trompeter: That’s a great point. I think a lot of times when we get into these processes, many ideas come up and where they fit into the puzzle is just as important as the final puzzle itself. So, some of those ideas might make more sense in your boilerplate and not necessarily be your vision, mission, or values. But let’s say an organization feels like they have clear and compelling vision, mission, and values statements, how do they get them out there and share them with the world?
Ryan Gerhardt: First thing I would say is, “Congratulations.” Getting to even a draft that is clear and compelling is an accomplishment. I think the first thing that you should do when you get to something that you think is really solid is, if you haven’t had, potentially, people outside of the organization already involved up to this point, you might want to take an opportunity to share with a very select group of audiences or key stakeholders, potentially even folks who are connected or within the organization but weren’t part of the process just to make sure that folks outside of the room, people outside of the bubble of this creation, can truly understand what it is that’s being said and each of those ideas resonate. I think that’s really the first step because you’ll get your initial feedback and make any additional tweaks from there.
Ryan Gerhardt: After you get to that point, you’ve kind of pressure tested this draft that is clear and compelling, that’s when you can start rolling them out to your different audiences. Anytime that we’re thinking about a rollout, it’s certainly phased, right? So, you want to start with those that are closest to you, and so for audiences that are really closely connected to your organization, depending on how many folks you need to reach, sometimes it’s a personalized email. If it’s a much smaller group of folks, maybe you want to potentially give them a phone call, just something that has a little bit more of a higher touch to bring them up to speed, ensure that they’re on the journey with you ensure that if there are any still remaining hiccups, you can kind of walk them through that, and then you’re starting to build up that base of people who are now bought in. From there, you’ll radiate out a little bit. You know, bring in maybe another audience group, to eventually getting to a point that you are adding these different statements to your website, maybe different pieces that you’re creating to update all of your audiences, new and existing, and letting them know, “Hey, here’s what we’re working toward, here’s how we’re doing it, here’s what we stand for.” All of these great different pieces. And you’ll have, at this point, already built up and created additional ambassadors to help you reinforce that and spread the word for new folks coming in.
Farra Trompeter: That’s great. I’d add to that, too, for organizations with in-person spaces where audiences come in, even if it’s just your staff, but maybe if you’re an arts and culture space where you have visitors or other things, I’ve seen vision, mission, values literally in posters or painted on the wall. So, think about how those can be used as tools to let people really understand what you’re about.
Farra Trompeter: Ryan, last question. How often should an organization consider changing these statements? What are some clues, maybe, that one or all of them might need to be updated?
Ryan Gerhardt: Well, if these statements are created in conjunction with Big Duck, you never need to change them. They’re going to be perfect. No, but in reality, at the bare minimum, these guiding statements should be useful for at least maybe five to 10 years. For some organizations, it will be longer than that. It realistically comes down to assessing regularly and figuring out, “Are we still working toward this goal? Are we still using these approaches?” We generally advise organizations to review the different articulations. Even if the idea is staying the same, maybe the written or verbal construction that you have of the statement isn’t quite right at that point. So, every few years, either in conjunction with some sort of strategic planning or as part of a regular brand check-up process, just taking a step back, assessing these statements, making sure that they are still useful and working for your organization, making sure that there’s still accurate.
Ryan Gerhardt: Part of that, as we said, is just language also changes so, even if the idea is the same, maybe the language needs to be tweaked a little bit. If you think that as you’re writing them, maybe you get to that point and you think you have, “Okay, I have a clear and compelling vision statement or mission or the whole group,” and then you take a step back and you think, “You know what, this won’t last more than three or five years, or we’ll get there sooner,” or something like that. You might need to ask yourself if you’re actually setting a bold enough goal or really hitting on big enough ideas with your vision, mission, and values because these are things that you realistically likely won’t be able to achieve quickly. So if it’s something that you think will be done in the next two to three years, maybe that’s not actually your vision, maybe that’s a shorter-term goal. If you get to a point where your day-to-day work, or again, if you come up with a new strategic planning process, whatever it happens to be if these things are no longer matching up with your goals and what the organization is doing, that’s definitely time to consider reflecting on where there might be gaps.
Farra Trompeter: Great. Well, Ryan, thank you so much. I want to say for folks out there, the inspiration for this conversation came from a blog that Ryan wrote a few months ago about creating and using your vision, mission, and values. You can find that at bigduck.com/insights. We’ll also link to it in the show notes or transcript for this. I want to also note that I recently spoke with Ruth McFarlane of the Ms. Foundation for Women all about using vision, mission, and values to guide your donor communications. So if that’s a focus of yours, be sure to listen to that episode as well. And of course, if you’re interested in revisiting your vision, mission, and values or doing a brand check-up or anything like that, feel free to drop us a line at [email protected]. Ryan, thanks again for being on the show.
Ryan Gerhardt: Thanks for having me.