Defining mission, vision, values

Nonprofit governance expert Terrie Temkin discusses the differences between these key leadership concepts and how each should be used.

Terrie Temkin

These concepts are so central to what we do in the nonprofit sector, there is an assumption that everyone should just “know” what they are.  It doesn’t help that the terms are often used interchangeably and that you can read three different sets of definitions and get three different ways of defining them.

I believe that my definitions are fairly standard.  However, I know that I’m a bit of a maverick in how I value and use each, so I’ll try to clarify my biases when sharing these. 

To me, your mission is your purpose statement, your raison d’être.  It specifies what you do and, ideally, how you go about doing it.  It is geared to be widely shared both within and without the organization. 

As such, I’m in agreement with those who feel that it should be short and easy to remember.  After all, you want staff, the board, clients, vendors and the community to be able to cite it – preferably, correctly. 

However, while the late management guru Peter Drucker used to say that mission statements should fit on the front of a T-shirt, they are not the same thing as a tag line, which is a marketing statement.   

Let’s take an actual example to see what I mean. The mission of the United Way is “to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities.”  Its tag line is “Live United.” 

The relationship between the two is clear.  But, the first statement tells you why the United Way exists – to improve lives – and how it intends to accomplish its task – through mobilizing the caring power of communities. 

The second statement is a rallying cry for community members to come together and support one another through the United Way, thereby also improving the quality of their own lives.

While the mission statement is important – so important that you’ll be expected to include it in all publications – I believe that your vision is actually more critical. 

This is because I define vision as a picture of how the community will in fact be different as a result of the organization having accomplished what it set out to do.

Note that I said “community” and not “organization.” I know that I am more likely to support the United Way’s efforts to build a stronger, healthier America, where people do for one another because they care, than I am to ensure that the United Way is financially strong and has a positive image in the community. 

This community impact view of vision is incredibly powerful.  The ability to “paint” a picture so that those responsible for planning and implementation literally “see” the desired future in their minds’ eye provides both the organizational direction and motivation required to move them forward over the long term. 

Organizational values also provide direction, especially if they speak, as I believe they should, to the organization’s core beliefs.  They are different from personal ethics, such as honesty and integrity.  They are guiding principles for organizational behavior. 

The values of an adult literacy program, for instance, might include: that one’s level of literacy neither defines that individual nor speaks to his/her intelligence; that everyone deserves to be treated with equal levels of respect; that a literate society improves the quality of life for all; and, that everyone has the capability of becoming functionally literate. 

Confronted with the opportunity to apply for a grant under the condition that the program would focus on only one segment of society to the exclusion of others that could benefit from literacy training, the organization would have to pass on the grant to remain consistent with its values.

Together, mission, vision and values provide the parameters within which decisions should be made and resources expended.  This means that a great deal of thought should go into the crafting of each. 

I hope this brief summary helps your board think through how it will tweak these three key statements.

Terrie Temkin is founding partner at the Miami, Fla.-based management consulting group CoreStrategies for Nonprofits Inc. For five years, her “On Nonprofits” column appeared biweekly in the Miami Herald.

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