Strategic Planning Series Part 3: Mission, Vision, Core Values
This is the third blog post in the Successful Nonprofits’ strategic planning series and focuses on crafting powerful mission statements, vision statements, and core values. While each post is designed to stand on its own, you can read the other posts here:
The United States Constitution opens with this mission statement: “To form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” While our forebears were a bit wordy in the 1700’s, the very first sentence is this mission statement for our nation’s democracy. And the first sentence sets out the reasons why the constitution exists.
As a result, this mission statement becomes the measuring stick that determines whether the Constitution achieved its purpose. Based on this evaluation, I think that our founding fathers sorely missed the mark on the entire mission statement when they agreed to the 3/5ths compromise, the 1808 agreement, and only giving voting rights to white men.
What is a mission statement?
In the nonprofit sector, a mission statement is simply a short, memorable phrase describing why an organization exists. As such, the mission statement should inspire action and guide decisions of the staff and the board.
Good mission statements start with one of two types of verbs. For the fellow grammar nerds in cyberland, mission statements most often begin with a present participle (a verb that ends in “ing” – like encouraging, building) or an infinitive (a verb preceded by the word “to”).
The best mission statements are incredibly short, most often just ten words or less. When I facilitate strategic planning, I challenge the work group to develop a proposed mission statement in 10 words or less. At first work group members are skeptical that they can encapsulate a mission in so few words, and this is especially true for organizations with long mission statements that are essentially one or two full paragraphs.
To help the most skeptical people understand the power of a short, memorable mission statement, I will typically share about a dozen short mission statements that inspire action and guide decisions.
Georgia Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing: Empowering People à Breaking Barriers à Thriving Community (8 words – including symbols)
SOJOURN: Advancing LGBTQ affirmation and empowerment across the South (8 words)
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta: To make kids better today and healthier tomorrow (8 words)
CHRIS Kids: To heal children, strengthen families and build community (8 words).
Georgia Lawyers for the Arts: To further creativity by protecting and advising Georgia’s artists and inventors (11 words)
The Humane Society: Celebrating Animals, Confronting Cruelty. (4 words)
TED: Spreading Ideas. (2 words)
Wounded Warrior Project: To honor and empower wounded warriors. (6 words)
Public Broadcasting System (PBS): To create content that educates, informs and inspires (8 words).
National Wildlife Federation: Inspiring Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future. (9 words)
The Task Force: Advance full freedom, justice and equality for LGBTQ people (9 words).
New York Public Library: To inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities. (10 words)
Zebra Coalition: To support and inspire LGBTQ+ youth (6 words)
What is a vision statement?
Now that we’ve fully reviewed the definition and purpose of mission statements, let’s spend some time on vision statements. The vision statement is also a short, memorable phrase but it outlines the desired long-term outcome instead of the reason for existence. Visions statements describe the world / city / region in which the organization has achieved its mission.
A food bank, for example, might have a mission “To end hunger in our community”, while its vision statement might be “A community without hunger”.
I’ve often felt that effective vision statements can almost always start with the same words and the same deep voice as movie trailers: “In a world where no child is hungry”.
When facilitating a strategic planning process, I almost always challenge the work group to propose a vision statement that is also ten words or less. As with the mission statement challenge, I also provide about a dozen examples of short and pithy vision statements,
Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta: Best care . . . Healthier kids (4 words)
C4 Atlanta: For Atlanta artists to make a living making art (9 words)
Georgia Center of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing: The Center of a thriving community (6 words)
Georgia Lawyers for the Arts: An environment where all artists and inventors have access to essential legal services (13 words)
Human Rights Campaign: Equality for everyone (3 words)
Innovative Solutions for the Disabled: Healthy, functioning families à Successful children
Oxfam: A just world without poverty (5 words)
Habitat for Humanity: A world where everyone has a decent place to live. (10 words)
SOJOURN: We envision LGBTQ inclusive communities inspired by Jewish and universal value. (11 words)
United Way: Greater Atlanta is a community where all individuals and families thrive. (11 words)
Zebra Coalition: A community where all LGBTQ+ youth feel safe and empowered
What are core values?
Once the work group has proposed new mission and vision statements, it’s time to draft core values for the organization. The core values are typically 4 to 7 value statements that further guide an organization’s planning, decision making, and operations.
The core values are often intensely personal to the organization, and this is a great place to add all the additional words and ideas that wouldn’t fit into the mission and vision statements.
Core value statements can be as simple as a list of single words, like Bright Horizons’ core values of Honesty * Excellence * Accountability * Respect * Teamwork. And they can be a paragraph each. I really appreciate Project Open Hand’s Core values:
We put our mission first.
We honor our staff & volunteers as our most valuable resource.
We pursue innovation.
We embrace diversity.
We act with integrity.
We pledge accountability.
With a complete environmental scan and a proposed mission, vision, and core values, the organization can begin drafting an initial strategy and direction. But you are also probably thinking: “Wait a minute, Dolph, this seems like a whole lot of work that needs to be done before we begin working on the strategy. Why don’t you share who will be doing all of the work?”
And that would be a completely fair question.
Neither the environmental scan nor creating the mission, vision, and core values should be tasks completed by just one or two people. This critical strategic planning work is best done by a Work Group that includes board, staff, and perhaps a couple of community leaders. In Part 4 of this series, we’ll discuss the role of a work group, the amount of time work group members typically commit to the process, and how to recruit these important leaders.