Vision Statement vs Mission Statement for Nonprofits

The vision statement vs mission statement for nonprofits topic depicts two key components of a nonprofit’s purpose and direction. These are two essential components of a nonprofit’s organizational identity. A vision statement is an aspirational declaration of what an organization hopes to achieve. It provides direction and purpose for the organization and is a rallying cry for all stakeholders to work towards a common goal. On the other hand, a mission statement defines the organization’s purpose, what it aims to accomplish, and how it plans to achieve its goals. It acts as a roadmap and provides the organization’s operations and activities framework. 

A clear and well-articulated vision and mission statement can help an organization maintain its focus and stay aligned with its goals and objectives, even during times of change and pressure. The vision and mission statement should be lived out, not just documented or displayed as wall decor. The more the organization’s work aligns with its vision and mission, the more authentic and impactful it will be.

It’s important to note that while a vision statement is a destination, a mission statement is the map, and the organization’s values are the guideposts. It’s a trifecta of corporate culture that helps an organization stay focused on its purpose and achieve its goals.

Let’s dive deeper into understanding the vision statement.

Your vision should exist outside a frame on the wall or a page in the handbook.

As I write this, I think back to the 1990s and the prevalence of Successories. Motivational artwork…usually of a nature scene and one aspirational term. The decor of the day, these pieces adorned office walls everywhere. Although they were hung with good intentions, in my experience, most became the inspiration for snarky office jokes. Perhaps it was the fact that businesses were purchasing prefab values that led to the backlash. Team members want to see values lived out, not published or printed for wall decor.

Don’t get me wrong, documenting your mission and vision statements is important, but in an ideal world, it’s something written on people’s hearts, as well as in their orientation handbook.

A decade or so ago, I worked for a very large publishing house. New team member orientation was done in batches of 3-10 people at a time. During one of my first onboarding sessions, the HR director asked our group of six who could recite the organization’s mission statement. I immediately scanned the room, looking for expressions of confidence or smirks from my new peers…nothing. In fact, they all looked panicked. Recalling the narrative of the statement was easy, but I wasn’t 100% sure about each word or the order. Something is better than nothing, right? I timidly raised my hand and recited a paraphrased version of the statement. I hit the major parts but undoubtedly did not get it verbatim. The HR director praised my effort and explained, “You’re not 100% correct in the wording, but you nailed the sentiment.”

Stating your vision is not about the words, but it is about understanding.

It’s hard to see the horizon when you’re in the trenches.

Nonprofit work culture is the tyranny of the urgent. If your days are like mine, no sooner do you take your third cup of coffee and it’s lunchtime. It’s a blur of decisions, opportunities, struggles, and task work that has to get done. Beneath the busyness, lack of capacity, budgets, and good intentions are a thousand small decisions that cumulatively steer the trajectory of your work.

Sure, we do the strategic planning routine, but let’s be honest…where does that plan exist? A file cabinet, a pad of window-sized post-its, or a shared drive…right? A year cannot be steered by one day of planning. A vision cannot be maintained when it isn’t acted on daily.

Create a vision that captures today and tomorrow.

Great vision statements build off the work we’re doing today by casting a vision of that work maximized in the future. For example, look at these examples of great vision statements:

Make-A-Wish: That people everywhere will share the power of a wish.

World Vision: We look forward to a world where every child experiences Jesus’ promise of life in all its fullness.

Now, I’m certain the world is not fully embracing sustainable energy, but we’re getting there.

I’m also certain there are still millions of children struggling in this world, but World Vision is helping.

A vision statement is not an endpoint or a status. It is an ideal for today, and for many days that will have a great cumulative impact. Like Make-A-Wish and World Vision, great organizations prepare statements that allow for inclusivity in the solution and speak to action. Whether you’re actively working for your program’s purpose or doing the behind-the-scenes work to make it possible, it should align and further your vision.

The danger zone for most nonprofits is fundraising. There are all sorts of ways to raise support and make money that can take an organization outside its vision and purpose. A strong vision influences every area of work—from development to direct services. The more of a correlation you can create between your appeals and your purpose, the more authentic your vision will become.

Ways to keep your vision visible:

Recite it. Remember starting every school day with the Pledge of Allegiance? Do the same with your vision statement before your board and operational meetings.

Develop a decision-making test for your organization that includes reference to your vision and mission. If it doesn’t pass the test, it doesn’t happen.

Call out excellence. Reward employees and volunteers when they do things that embody the vision and mission of your organization.

Mission, vision, values…what does it all mean?

A vision statement is your destination, a mission statement is your map, and your values are your guideposts.

Before we get into the trifecta of corporate culture listed above, remember: don’t get caught up in semantics. Whether it’s your mission statement, vision, values, or a mantra, the goal is to have an easily understood defining purpose. Trying to fit your organization’s culture into one of these buckets is work you don’t have time for. That said, here’s an explanation of the role each could play:

Vision Statement: A guiding purpose. The ideal that your mission and values build toward.

Mission Statement: The actions your organization will take to achieve its vision. (Note: this doesn’t need to be ALL the actions…keep it short and easily memorized.)

Core Values: The fundamental beliefs that guide decisions and actions in your organization.

Less may be more, as it’s a lot to ask of any team to memorize this many things. Most importantly, your leadership should reflect the ideal you’re asking your organization to achieve.

Final thought: These times, they are a-changin’

World Vision’s vision makes no mention of poverty or water. Make-A-Wish’s vision doesn’t include any reference to the ailments of children. Their visions are broad enough to allow for the possibility of achievement and satisfaction of their missional work. In a world where ideas move from conception to commodity in a decade, be careful to not think too small. Think in terms of an overarching purpose that recognizes that there are always ways to do more good.

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Katie Appold

Katie’s nonprofit career includes a variety of leadership roles for human service, foundation, and publishing-related nonprofits as well as many volunteer roles. Under Katie’s leadership, nonprofit organizations have developed new programs related to free healthcare, affordable and accessible housing and literacy programs for K-12 students. In her first Executive Director role, Katie increased the annual revenue of the organization she led by 300% and received the top grant prize in the nation for affordable housing through the Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis. Today, she leads Nonprofit Hub and Cause Camp, which collectively serve more than 50,000 nonprofits throughout North America. Her educational background includes an undergraduate degree in business administration and a masters degree in nonprofit leadership. Katie serves as the board president of Gracious Grounds, a housing organization serving individuals with disabilities. She is an active member of the Grand Rapids Young Nonprofit Professionals, the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, Cause Network, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals.

February 8, 2023

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