The number one job of a nonprofit leader is to wake up every morning, point to the horizon, and let everybody on the team know where they’re headed and how they’ll get there. In other words, leaders are charged with casting vision and leading the mission. They're the chief visionary and the lead missionary. If he succeeds, the organization thrives. If he fails, the organization dies.
Understanding the difference between these two concepts—vision and mission—and distilling them into written statements, is crucial to the health and growth of your organization. A proper vision statement depicts the future your organization intends to create, while an effective mission statement describes the way you intend to get there. Employed in combination, they unify your team, motivate your donor base, and inspire the community.
Sadly, however, most vision and mission statements are a tangled spaghetti of lofty phrases, lengthy clauses, and complicated words. They are blurred in focus and eminently forgettable. Often, the CEO and Board can’t even cite them from memory. No wonder that nobody else can.
So, how can you write powerfully effective vision and mission statements? Ones that will create alignment and unity, increase engagement and productivity, and fire up the donor base? By composing statements that are clear, concise, and inspiring, and thus memorable.
Writing a Vision Statement: The Future You Intend to Create
A compelling vision statement depicts your organization’s destination, the future you intend to create. It answers the question, “What will the world look like once we’re successful?” Vision statements are usually prefaced by phrases such as “We envision a world in which…,” “We exist so that….,” or “For every person….” Put differently, a well-crafted vision statement describes the beautiful scene at the top of the mountain your organization intends to scale.
Here are a few examples of well-crafted nonprofit vision statements:
“A world where everyone has a decent place to live” (Habitat for Humanity)
“For every child, life in all its fullness; Our prayer for every heart, the will to make it so.” (World Vision)
“A world where no child goes to bed hungry” (Feed the Children)
“A world in which all people have pathways to health and opportunity” (Americares)
The best vision statements are memorable because they are clear, concise, and inspiring. They are composed of one sentence and no more than twenty-five words. They use simple and concrete language rather than industry jargon or cultural buzzwords. And they describe an outcome the organization is uniquely posed to achieve.
Writing a Mission Statement: How You Intend to Get There
If the vision statement describes the beautiful scene at the top of the mountain you intend to scale, the mission statement describes the route you will take to arrive. It answers questions such as, “What will we do to make our vision a reality?” “How, specifically, will we do it?” and “Why does it matter?” Whereas the vision statement paints a broad picture of an unchanging goal, the mission statement is more specific, often has a shorter lifespan, and is likely to develop as the organization grows and evolves.
At the most basic, a nonprofit’s mission statement should express, in a memorable manner, how the organization intends to achieve its vision. Here are two examples—drawn from Habitat for Humanity and Make-a-Wish:
“Seeking to put God’s love into action, Habitat for Humanity brings people together to build homes, communities and hope.” (Habitat for Humanity)
“Together, we create life-changing wishes for children with critical illnesses.” (Make-a-Wish)
Each of these statements is exemplary for being clear, concise, and inspiring. They are composed of one sentence, and no more than twenty-five words. They use simple and concrete language. And they describe a process each organization is uniquely poised to facilitate.
The Basics + A Justice Orientation
A nonprofit might also include language that positions the organization as a warrior against injustice. As such, the body of the mission statement will be followed by phrases such as, “because every person deserves…” or “because no person deserves….”
If Habitat for Humanity were to rewrite its mission statement by foregrounding a particular injustice, they might say:
“We bring people together to build homes, community, and hope, because the world deserves to see God’s love in action.”
If Make-a-Wish were to rewrite its mission statement by focusing on a specific injustice, they might say:
“Together, we create life-changing wishes for children with critical issues, because no child deserves to be robbed of joy.”
By foregrounding your organization’s counteroffensive against a specific injustice, people are more likely to remember the mission statement and respond positively when you call them to action.
The Basics + A Justice Orientation + A Measuring Stick
As well, a nonprofit might make their mission statement measurable. As such the body of the mission statement would include not only specific mission tasks but also a specific deadline. Doing so creates a sense of urgency.
If Habitat for Humanity were to also include this option, it might reword its statement to say:
“We will provide homes for [specific number of] people per year by [target date] because the world deserves to see God’s love in action.”
If Make-a-Wish were to make its statement measurable, it might reword its statement to say:
“We will create life-changing wishes for [specific number of] children with critical issues by [target date] because no child deserves to be robbed of joy.”
By crafting a mission statement that is measurable, you provide your constituents with goals toward which to strive, your donors with a mission bigger than themselves, and your organization with clear-cut marching orders. As your organization achieves the measurable goals, the mission statement can be refreshed to include different target numbers, perhaps every few years.
A Powerful Combination
By composing vision and mission statements that are clear, concise, and distinctive—and thus memorable—you can create organizational alignment and unity, increase engagement and productivity, and fire up prospective donors and program participants.
So, take your time. Hone your vision statement to perfection, describing the beautiful scene at the top of the mountain our organization intends to scale. Refine your mission statement until it’s flawless, describing the route you will take to the top of the mountain. Then wake up every day, point to the horizon, and remind everybody on the team where you’re headed and how you’ll get there.