Not So Fast: First Define Your Mission, Vision & Values

  The long-term effects of the economic downturn are still being felt by many nonprofits – and by those who rely on their services. According to a recent report by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, only 41% of human service organizations were able to meet demand in 2014. The need for services has increased, as has the need to offer competitive wages to employees and to develop succession plans for aging leadership. Unrestricted funding continues to be scarce, and funders often don’t cover the full costs of the programs they intend to support.

Many of the nonprofits that were able to weather the storm of the Great Recession are responding by taking a step back to look at how they fit into this new reality. They are engaging in conversations about how their organizations can be sustainable and viable going forward. According to the Nonprofit Finance Fund report, 29% of organizations surveyed had conducted long-term strategic planning in the previous year.

When working on a strategic plan, though, it’s not enough to think only about tactics, goals, strategies and objectives for the next year, or three years, or even five years. In order to survive and thrive throughout the changes inherent in strategic planning and its implementation, it’s critical to be clear about why you do what you do, how you do it, and how you behave in the process.

What we’re talking about is your organization’s vision, mission, and values. While programs and activities and approaches will change from year to year, your vision, mission, and values will be the foundation that holds your organization together in turbulent times. It will also help guide you when you’re faced with tough decisions. So what’s the difference between vision and mission? Which comes first? And how do values fit into all of this? “You've got to think about big things while you're doing small things so that all the small things go in the right direction.” – Alvin Toffler


The vision is an aspirational statement of what your organization wants to become in the future. It’s not what you do; rather, it’s what or where you want to be, or how you want the world to be. Vision statements are big and broad, and they stand the test of time. A shared, authentic vision is critical because it helps the entire organization focus its attention on what is most important; it brings everyone together in support of a common purpose. A solid vision is inspirational and energizing for employees – it’s what helps them understand why they come to work every day. A few inspiring examples:

  • Habitat for Humanity:  A world where everyone has a decent place to live
  • Chevron: To be the global energy company most admired for its people, partnership and performance
  • AIDS Research Alliance: A future in which HIV and its effects on health are eliminated, and new infections prevented
  • Amazon: To be earth’s most customer-centric company
  • American Public Media: To be the most relevant, innovative and insightful media company in America


The mission statement supports the vision and defines the fundamental purpose of an organization. It’s what an organization is doing today that’s eventually going to help them achieve the vision. Mission statements use action verbs – (e.g., to cure; to enhance; to inspire; to nurture; to delight). They can be valuable in determining what to do, as well as what not to do. A strong mission statement makes clear what an organization does, and for whom:

  • Mothers Against Drunk Driving: To stop drunk driving, support the victims of this violent crime and prevent underage drinking
  • Cuisinart: To help you savor the good life
  • New York Times: To enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news and information
  • Starbucks:To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time
  • Habitat for Humanity: To bring people together to build homes, communities and hope


Values describe what sort of organization you want to be while carrying out your mission. These are the acceptable standards that govern the behavior of individuals within the organization. Why are they important? Values help to define your culture and everyday interactions with one another. They direct the journey toward your vision. Also, your organization’s values can be a useful tool for individuals to determine whether their personal values are in line with your organization. They can also be helpful in recruiting new employees – to use as a filter in hiring decisions and to measure progress toward goals. Consider how these organizations’ values reflect their identities and behaviors:

  • United Nations: Integrity, professionalism, and respect for diversity.
  • Facebook: Focus on impact. Move fast. Be bold. Be open. Build social value.
  • Doctors Without Borders: We are guided by medical ethics and the principles of independence and impartiality; bearing witness; and accountability.
  • Zappos: • Deliver WOW Through Service
• Embrace and Drive Change
• Create Fun and A Little Weirdness
• Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded • Pursue Growth and Learning • Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication • Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
• Do More With Less
• Be Passionate and Determined • Be Humble
  • Southwest Airlines: Warmth, friendliness, creativity, fun, individual pride, and company spirit.

A clearly-defined mission, vision, and values can accomplish many goals. It can boost employee engagement, keep stakeholders informed about your direction, and help your organization make strategic decisions about what to do, who to hire, and how to behave. The clearer you can articulate your organization’s mission, vision and values from the start, the less time you’ll need to:

  • Spend managing unhappy employees
  • Aligning disparate strategies
  • Sort out misunderstandings
  • Decide how to allocate resources
  • Struggle with making the right decisions later on

Before embarking on an intensive, long-term strategic planning process, take the time to step back, engage in some organizational introspection, and remember why you’re there in the first place.

Strategic Consulting and Coaching offers Strategic Planning sessions with nonprofit organizations to help guide them through the Mission, Vision, and Values planning process.

Learn more at: Strategic Consulting & Coaching

MissionMolly Schwartz