Q: Our board held a meeting the other night to discuss our mission, vision and values. There was a lot of debate as to what each of these really is and how they differ. If you could provide us with a definition of each, it would be quite helpful. We are scheduled to revisit this.

A:  Thank you for asking a question that I’m sure many others have but are afraid to ask. These concepts are so central to what we do in the nonprofit sector, there is an assumption that everyone should just “know” what they are. It doesn’t help that the terms are often used interchangeably and that you can read three different sets of definitions and get three different ways of defining them.

I believe that my definitions are fairly standard. However, I know that I’m a bit of a maverick in how I value and use each, so I’ll try to clarify my biases when sharing these.

 To me, your mission is your purpose statement, your raison d’être.It specifies what you do and, ideally, how you go about doing it. It is geared to be widely shared both within and without the organization. As such, I’m in agreement with those who feel that it should be short and easy to remember. After all, you want staff, the board, clients, vendors and the community to be able to cite it – preferably, correctly!However, while the late management guru Peter Drucker used to say that mission statements should fit on the front of a T-shirt, they are not the same thing as a tagline, which is a marketing statement.

Let’s take an actual example to see what I mean. The mission of the United Way is “to improve lives by mobilizing the caring power of communities.”Its tagline is “Live United.”The relationship between the two is clear. But, the first statement tells you why the United Way exists – to improve lives – and how it intends to accomplish its task – through mobilizing the caring power of communities. The second statement is a rallying cry for community members to come together and support one another through the United Way, thereby also improving the quality of their own lives.

While the mission statement is important – so important that you’ll be expected to include it in all publications – I believe that your vision is actually more critical. This is because I define vision as a picture of how the community will, in fact, be different as a result of the organization having accomplished what it set out to do. Note that I said “community” and not “organization.” I know that I am more likely to support the United Way’s efforts to build a stronger, healthier America, where people do for one another because they care than I am to ensure that the United Way is financially strong and has a positive image in the community. This community impact view of vision is incredibly powerful. The ability to “paint” a picture so that those responsible for planning and implementation literally “see” the desired future in their minds’ eye provides both the organizational direction and motivation required to move them forward over the long term.

Organizational values also provide direction, especially if they speak, as I believe they should, to the organization’s core beliefs. They are different from personal ethics, such as honesty and integrity. They are guiding principles for organizational behavior. The values of an adult literacy program, for instance, might include: that one’s level of literacy neither defines that individual nor speaks to his/her intelligence; that everyone deserves to be treated with equal levels of respect; that a literate society improves the quality of life for all; and, that everyone has the capability of becoming functionally literate. Confronted with the opportunity to apply for a grant under the condition that the program would focus on only one segment of society to the exclusion of others that could benefit from literacy training, the organization would have to pass on the grant to remain consistent with its values.

Together, mission, vision, and values provide the parameters within which decisions should be made and resources expended. This means that a great deal of thought should go into the crafting of each. I hope this brief summary helps your board think through how it will tweak these three key statements.


Congratulations on your clear writing and examples in the August newsletter for CoreStrategies. I go over this all the time with clients, and you hit the nails on the head precisely. It’s something to hold onto and think about for the ones who can’t wrap their minds around the concepts.

– Rochelle Beck, President
Culturas del Sol, Inc.

I’m with you on these Terrie. But I reverse the order in strategic planning.

Values bring people together within an organization to form a vision of the ‘better world’ and mission is how the organization will contribute to that better world…what little chunk of work it can do to move toward the vision. Cheers!

– Mel Gill, President
Synergy Associates, Consultants in Governance & Organizational Development