Strategic Planning Retreats

Mission, Vision and Values

There are a lot of bad mission statements out there. Yet as a nonprofit Director you are told they’re important. So how do you create a good one? In this article we share our perspective on creating Mission Statements, Vision Statements and Values Statements that you can be proud of.

What is a Mission Statement?

There are many conflicting descriptions of what a mission is or should be. One common definition is that they describe what you do, where you do it, and who you do it for. A fast food vendor at the Chicago O’Hare Airport might have a mission to;

 “Provide food and beverages to passengers and employees at Chicago O’Hare.”

This mission could of course address any food vendor at the airport. A better example would be, if one of those vendors focused on “whole food that is a healthier alternative to fast food” to;

“Provide whole foods and beverages to passengers and employees at Chicago O’Hare that are a healthier choice than traditional fast food.”

Clarity, brevity, and a lack of hyperbole are all desirable. One way to begin the process of developing a mission would be to ask the question;

 If we ceased to exist today, what wouldn’t happen?

Non profit mission statement example

Another way to think about mission is that of target and means. Where the target is the need you are addressing, and the means is how you do it.

Second Harvest  in Toronto  is a nice example of this[1]

Our MISSION is to help feed hungry people by picking up and preparing excess fresh food and delivering it daily to social service agencies in Toronto

What I like about this mission statement is that it is unique to how Second Harvest goes about helping to feed the hungry. Although food banks and other organizations are also there to help feed the hungry, the way that Second Harvest does this is clearly different.

Using this as an example we recently helped a community service organization re-write three different mission statements for three separate entities. We started as usual with a long list of brainstormed ideas but the more we worked at it the more certain core ideas came through. No matter which service we talked about the importance of providing a safe and secure environment where children could learn came through loud and clear for this youth based organization. We were finally able to get full agreement on three very short, and very powerful statements. It is interesting that when you read these statements you understand why these three apparently unrelated organizations really do fit together, and yet each stands on its own.

What is a Vision Statement?

For a non profit one of the most compelling types of vision statements answers the question;

“What would a perfect world look like?”

Another good question is;

“What would a world that no longer needed our organization look like?”

Once again we think that Second Harvest sets a great example;

Our VISION is that no one need ever go hungry in the communities we serve.

It is widely acknowledged that visions may never be achieved. It also widely believed that the pursuit of the vision should be motivating to board, staff, volunteers, donors or anyone else who comes in contact with the organization. The same community services organization came up with; Every child gets to experience the joy and learning of summer camp, as their vision for one of their programs. Knowing the children that they are targeting I know that I could get motivated by this.

What belongs in a Values Statement?

I think that values and culture are strongly related. I also believe that people, whether they are management, staff, or directors will opt-in or opt-out of an organization because of a values match, or mismatch. Your values statement should then clearly reflect who you are as an organization.  Quite simply, the values of the organization are the values held and demonstrated by the people who work there. It is not the values that some committee thinks you should aspire to, nor is it a laundry list of everything nice. If you seriously believe that you need to change the values of an organization then you need to change the people.

Some questions that can help you uncover an organization’s values;

“What values are so key to us that we would be willing to lose otherwise good talent if they were not in compliance?”

“What values would you bring to continue to bring to work with you whether they were rewarded or not?”

“Think of 2 or 3 people who you think exemplify what this organization is all about. Now prepare a list of all the things these people seem to have in common. What does this tell you about their values? Now what about three people who were a complete mismatch for the organization, how were their apparent values different from those of your stars?”

These will create a great starting point, but the initial list is always too long. I suspect that most people wont remember more than three, yet you will often see lists of ten or more. I think that five is a good target, although it will take a lot of hard work to get there. We use a process involving brainstorming, multivotes, and most importantly debates to continually refine and shorten the list.

You will know you have it right when;

  • You can ask a new hire to describe what he or she sees as being the core value of the organization and they describe your list, in their own words, without being “trained”.
  • People have actually been fired over issues related to values
  • People who get promoted exemplify the stated values
  • People who live these values seek you out and want to work here
  • People who don’t live these values leave the organization of their own choice

Creating a good set of mission vision and values statements is hard work, but once they are done they will serve you for years. These are of course just one part of the strategic planning process. If you would like help creating a non profit mission statement, or vision and values, or any part of the strategy process, please contact Meeting Facilitators International


[1] We are not related to Second Harvest and were not involved in creating this.

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