Entirely Rethinking Mission Statements

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts - Omaha

My friend John Haydon’s recent post really has me thinking. The post was titled Why you should delete the mission statement on your website. Please read it (John is SO smart!)

John’s post comes at a good time for me, as we are thinking about our own mission statement for Creating the Future. (Like our name had been for years – the Community-Driven Institute – our current mission statement is a placeholder…)

When I teach the difference between Mission and Vision, I have always shared an easy formula for a mission statement.

“To accomplish our vision, we do _____ for ______ people in the _____ region.”

Lately, though, we are re-thinking that. If in plain English we see a mission as something we set out to accomplish, that is very different than merely a statement of what we do.

A statement of what we do lacks movement, lacks will, lacks force. It assumes that we are providing an ongoing service.

And that’s when it hits me. This is another remnant from the business world!

The business world has given us the definition of Vision Statement as “the picture of the future of the organization.” That is fine if you are a business with the goal of self-perpetuation, but not so much if your reason for being is to create a better community. So for years, we have insisted that the vision for a Community Benefit Organization is for the future of the community, not the organization.

Now it is occurring to me that using the Mission Statement as a statement of what we do to get closer to the vision is simply another piece of that. If your organization’s vision is self-perpetuation, then yes, the mission is to keep doing that.

But that is not the definition of an organization that is reaching its potential to change conditions and create the future of our communities. It is the definition of a service provider!

To simultaneously provide service AND change conditions in our communities, an organization’s mission must be about accomplishing something! We must be able to use the word the way plain English suggests. Not “What will you do?” but What will you accomplish? For whom? What will you be changing? What will be better? And yes, by when?

Mission is about what you will accomplish for your community in the short term!

For Creating the Future, we are focusing on “Our mission for the next 5-10 years.”  That mission is to have the way this sector does its work ALL be aligned behind improving community conditions.  Governance, planning, program development, funding – we intend to see it all change, to align behind our potential to change the world. And we intend to accomplish that in 5 years.

And so our mission is not to DO the work of programs, but to actually accomplish some visible change! To see things be different in this sector. Dramatically different. In 5-10 years.  From there, we will develop programs that will accomplish that mission.

So maybe, John, we need a fourth statement.
• Vision Statement – What will the community be like when you are 100% successful?
• Mission Statement – What community conditions will you change in the short term, to take steps towards making that vision a reality?
• Values Statement – What beliefs and assumptions will guide your work? How will your decisions and actions model your vision and values to the others?

And lastly,
• Program Statement – What services are you providing / actions are you taking to accomplish that short-term mission?

And now I’m getting excited at what this simple change of language makes possible. What would change in your organization if your mission were about the community changes you intended to see become reality in 5 years?

I am giggling at the possibilities!!!

6 Responses to Entirely Rethinking Mission Statements

  1. Hildy,

    This article was an eye-opener. I’m going to send it to members of my non-profit as we are in the process of contemplating a mission-statement upgrade, and our current mission statement is a compilation of what we do. I didn’t understand the difference. Thanks!

  2. Hildy,
    I’ve been saying for years that, while you “need” a mission statement because everyone requires it, as a purpose statement it is not a driver. Vision and values are what drive an organization. Perhaps, viewing it with this added twist of the lens is the answer!

  3. Hildy – I love your emphasis on action. On doing. What ever form a mission or vision statement takes, it needs to do at least two things:

    1) Mirror what pulses inside the stakeholders.
    2) Make it clear that the mission is dead without action.

    It seems that the beginning of the end for most mission statements is when it’s written down. Somehow there’s this idea that “we’ve arrived” when a mission statement is inked.

    How can we continue rebirthing?


  4. Hildy, first comment is a bit self serving: I believe that you have read my book on philanthropy where i argue for a planning methodology to not even begin to think about mission/vision statements until the very end of a planning process – and maybe not even then. [While not the topic of this discussion, I argue for beginning the process with an examination of the culture of an organization.] Frankly, the process of creating most mission statements typically doesn’t help organizations make better or more efficient decisions or really help anyone outside truly understand the organization.

    Since most of your readers are not foundations/funders but rather in the nfp/ngo world, an anecdote. A few years ago, a major public foundation asked me to conduct a workshop on mission setting/changing. Approximately 80 ceo’s were in attendance. What became clear is that, with virtually no exception, the most that any of the organizations did with their mission statements was create one. A very few shared it with new board members; NONE had a process of involving staff or even sharing it with staff. The organizations typically went through the process as a part of a new strategic planning process, but then simply let it sit – until the next time. All this does is reinforce the observations you and others have made about how superfluous these statements typically are – and to my mind, typically a waste of time.

  5. I’m still thinking about this, but I like it a lot–I just did a quick review of mission statements of some nonprofits in my area, and they really are descriptions of service, more than a statement of purpose. If we’re going to shift to focusing on impact, we need statements that point us in that direction, not towards perpetual place-holding. Now I’ve got to read John’s post, too! Thank you for this.