Vision, mission, and values statements: creating and using them effectively
Developing and using your organizational vision, mission, and values statements can seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. Despite all of the pressure and importance that is placed on these guiding statements, they are quite straightforward and simple when you boil them down. [Need a refresher and some inspiration? Watch this webinar about crafting your organization’s vision, mission, and messaging.]
For example, if someone were to ask, “what’s your nonprofit’s vision?” all they’re really looking for is a one-liner about why your organization exists. Similarly, whenever someone wants to know your organizational mission, they’re simply asking “what do you do?” And while values have many layers, they are essentially a way to frame what your organization believes and how it makes decisions.
Why you should care about vision, mission, and values
Now, you may be wondering, “Why does my organization need these statements in the first place? The work is what’s most important, we know how to ask people for help, and we know what to do with that support.” First off, we love that energy and passion (and sometimes anger) as it’s fantastic fuel for your organization. However, it often doesn’t take long for that “fuel” to fizzle out or to be misdirected. Your nonprofit needs to be able to reflect something deeper and more sustainable. Collectively, vision, mission, and values statements help provide clarity and build a stronger, lasting connection with your audiences.
Purpose of each statement
Before digging into exploring and setting these statements, let’s first align around more concrete descriptions for each.
- A vision statement articulates the better world you’re working to help achieve. It paints a picture of the future, often idealistic and motivating. At Big Duck, we like to start from one of four “levels”—a vision for the world, for people, for the field, or for the future of your nonprofit.
- A mission statement explains how your organization will achieve your vision—what you actually do. There are five key characteristics to a powerful mission statement.
- Values statements are an articulation of the key beliefs and philosophies that guide your work internally and externally. Identifying and living those core values in a three-dimensional way is critical to motivating and building relationships with key audiences.
An approach to creating your vision, mission, and values
Getting to final versions, or even just drafts, of these statements requires some heavy lifting. Oftentimes, we find that the vision, mission, and values process begins as part of larger organizational strategic planning. When this occurs, the statements are crafted by board members or a group of staff. In some cases, this means there are dozens of people who have a hand in developing language and adding ideas. While this approach is great for internal buy-in, it’s not always the best for clear external statements—or even ones that genuinely represent your community. When bringing together 20 different voices and perspectives, the statements occasionally have to be watered down to appease everyone. Or, if the statements aren’t made more generic, they end up being quite long and confusing with a ton of twists and turns, jargon that’s inaccessible outside of the planning room, and a whole lot of “ands.”
It’s important to always keep in mind that the expressions of your vision, mission, and values statements need to be something people can easily understand. At the most basic level, all of your audiences should have the same general idea of what you’re talking about. And the language itself needs to be reflective of your audiences and community. For example, at a high level it may seem to make sense internally to use a term like “underserved” when referencing a population you work with, but that same word could be a barrier if you need clients and partners to see themselves in your work who don’t identify in that way.
While “too many cooks in the kitchen” is a common problem, we also are not suggesting that one person take full responsibility for writing these statements in a vacuum—that isn’t helpful either, especially for those of you prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. Instead, what is helpful is using that larger group of people to create the roadmap for where these statements should go. Bring together a few members of your board, staff, senior executives (especially if it’s their vision for the organization), and other stakeholders (potentially partners or community members) and begin to plan your approach and framework together. Ask yourselves, “why do we exist as an organization?” and then find the overlap in your answers. Do the same thing with “what” you do, “how” you do it, and any other questions you can think of to tell your organizational story. Then have most people take a step back, and let a smaller group create the initial drafts for everyone to reflect on.
Sharing and using your vision, mission, and values
Once you have your final vision, mission, and values statements, recognize that they might not be “final.” Share them with select audiences and stakeholders to make sure people outside of your organization can understand them, and that they resonate. Use the feedback you receive to fine-tune and tweak. We also recommend reviewing these statements at least once a year.
We’d love to tell you that the hard part is over at this point, but after you’ve completed all of this, you then have to put it into action. Hopefully, however, this process will create clear direction and build buy-in so that even though your nonprofit is taking on a major challenge, you’re able to come together through your work and overcome it.