Vision and Mission

Vision and Mission: What Is Important and How Do We Get There?

Two of the most important words for a non-profit organization are “vision” and “mission”. Sometimes these two concepts are not clear in the minds of volunteer leaders and professionals alike. They are most relevant when speaking about the work of the board of directors and professional staff in guiding the programs of the agency.

The vision statement should reflect who the founders are and the values that guided them in establishing the organization. It is about the reasons for the agency’s existence and expresses what is important for all those connected to the organization. It strives to answer the question, “What is(are) the reason(s) for this organization’s existence?”

The vision of the organization is an organizing principle that can guide the agency’s development. It should be used as a measure as to whether the organization has remained true to the reasons that led to its founding. Over time the non-profit’s vision can change and might be revised if the circumstances that moved the founders to establish the organization no longer exist. In some cases it might mean enhancing the vision or changing it. Very often it depends on the social and economic context that motivated people to develop the agency.

Although the vision can be expressed in long and elaborate statements it is best to say it in a brief and concise way so it is quickly and easily understood. It is best to aim for between one and three sentences. If it cannot be said in a brief way then this is a warning sign that there may not be clarity about the organization’s vision. It is better to spend time clarifying the vision statement as it is being formulated then having to have long-winded explanations to clarify what is meant every time someone asks what the vision statement means.

A vision statement is not “written in stone” and it is a dynamic statement that should be viewed as guiding the organization given the societal and cultural context. If reasons for establishing the organization change then the board of directors might have to engage in the challenging exercise of re-thinking and revising the vision statement. This can be an important step in the development of the organization and lead to strengthening the decision-making process for the volunteer and professional leadership.

Once approved the vision statement clearly articulates the cultural and social values guiding the organization. The next step is to develop a mission statement that is reflective of the vision. The mission statement puts forth the “what” of the organization. If the vision defines the values of the non-profit then the mission translates it into the language of the content, meaning the programs, of the agency. It lets clients, members, supporters and others know the services that are provided by the non-profit.

When the mission statement is worded clearly and correctly it can have a strong inspirational and motivational value. It has the ability to bring people closer to the organization. An effective mission statement uses words in a concise and efficient way. It broadcasts the meaning of the agency for the community and has an impact on the public relations efforts of the organization. It acts as a magnate in drawing people closer to the agency.

A word of caution should be shared in regard to both the vision and mission statements. The language should be appropriate for the community and professional jargon should be avoided. It should be in a language that speaks to the entire community and not worded in a way that it is difficult to understand.

The process of developing vision and mission statements can be an exciting and organizational building activity for either a newly formed or a veteran board of directors, in collaboration with the senior staff of the non-profit organization. It is an opportunity to step away from the day to day activities. This is the time to think openly in broad terms about the preferences people hold as important and to think about the priorities that guide the organization. It is best to build the process around an extended meeting of the board or a retreat that takes people out of their usual surroundings.

When the leadership of the organization has the opportunity to frame and tweak the vision and mission statements there is an important side benefit. Participating in this process draws people closer and strengthens their connections to the organization. Experiencing the shaping of the values and focus of the non-profit provides the opportunity for volunteer and professional leadership to feel a greater sense of “ownership” for the process of developing these statements as well as for the agency.

The challenge the leadership of many non-profits face is how to move beyond a general sense of an altruistic mission and to clearly define what is important to the organization. Although this does not necessarily seem like a difficult task we have unfortunately experienced non-profits that strive to contribute to the general welfare of the community while skipping this essential step. The time and effort invested by the volunteer and professional leadership in articulating the basic values guiding their programs as well as what they hope to accomplish is well worth it. The clarity of the vision and mission statements is often the guideposts for a successful agency.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.