The Age Old Question: Mission vs Vision
One of the most inconsistently used concepts in the nonprofit is that of a mission statement or vision statement. There is no REAL right or wrong way to do this, but there is a way that helps grow your organizations more efficiently, keep your donors focused, and build a more consistent brand.
Every nonprofit, when it is formed, is supposed to have some sort of mission statement. Some states require that this mission or purpose statement is included on the articles of incorporation. On Form 1023 (even 1023-EZ starting in 2018), the “mission” and “most significant activities” are to be provided.
The underlying reason for asking for a mission and activities is that the nonprofit corporation (all nonprofit organizations are set-up as corporations – managed by a board) exists only to serve its mission/purpose. The mission must be charitable, religious, educational, scientific, or other public service reasons. Once the mission/purpose is accomplished, the corporation is no longer needed. For this reason, nonprofits are not supposed to change their missions readily. It would, in many ways (at least theoretically), be better to start a new organization than to completely change a mission. It’s a new mission, after all.
Side Note: Over time, a nonprofit’s programs and works will likely develop. In some cases, an organization will shift pretty far away from the direction of the original mission. When an organization shifts too far from its originally stated purpose, it will need to alert the IRS. The IRS will revisit the nonprofit’s tax-exempt registration to make sure the updated work of the organization still qualifies under the standards and laws for being tax-exempt. Organizations are also expected to notify their boards, members (if any), and donors for any change or shift in their mission as well.
It is no unusual that throughout 10, 20, 30+ years, an organization will grow, develop, and expand its work. Things change, whether it is in the organization’s control or not. In many cases, the organization’s success means it can do more and expand services. Other reasons for change can be new technology or research developments, or even the recruitment of a volunteer or staff member who can take the organization further in one way or another, etc.
Let’s use an organization that’s original mission was “to teach brail to those who go blind later in life due to diabetes” as an example. The organization may want to do more than teach brail – maybe they will want to teach the blind individuals how to use a support cane, help provide their clients with guide dogs, and/or how to live independently again. Technically those are outside of the organization’s scope and mission. We know they are all still tax-exempt purposes, but it is beyond the purpose and mission of the organization. So the nonprofit will need to notify the IRS that its mission changed and expanded.
Shifts in purpose are one of the many reasons that the concept of mission and vision is so important.
VISION – Basically Unchanging
According to my practice… Your vision is the WHY behind what you do, not how you do it or plan to do it. It’s usually going to be the way you see the world or your vision for what the world could be. Broad. For our example, a decent vision statement for our example org is “Aiding those with vision impairments in living a life of purpose.” To make this a true “why” statement, we could start with the word “Because…” For example, “…because those with vision impairments deserve to live lives of purpose.” But that’s implied in the way it is written as a statement also.
Side Note: Personally, for a mission statement, I try to use a gerund when possible (present continuous tense verb with an -ing ending). By using the verb with an -ing ending, you are saying that you are currently doing your mission. Not “we hope to, we aim to, we exist to…” which all imply you someday would like to.
Notice in the sample vision statement that teaching the blind to read braille, serving only those who are blind due to diabetes, etc. are included, but not restricted. It is broad, yet still specific (focused) enough to mean something. You will probably never achieve your vision even if you accomplish 100 missions or steps towards it. If you do, you would gladly shut down your organization! This VISION is the statement you want on your articles of incorporation, IRS Application for Exemption, etc. where it asks for MISSION -- so they can grow with you. Your vision statement is also what will guide your organization for most if not all, of its existence – so this is what you will compel your fundraising efforts. Other examples could be: “Building a world without AIDS” (using the gerund) or just “A World Without AIDS” (the way you see the world), “Bringing the Word of God to the ends of the earth” or “So the Word of God can run and be glorified (2 Thessalonians 3:1)”.
Kevin’s Four Vision Statement Elements:
Broad – do it can grow with you
Clear - so anyone can read it has a feel for why you are undertaking such a tremendous about of work
Compelling – meaning it’s something certain people (read: ideal donors) would feel tugs on their heartstrings to support
Focused – so that your niche and your why are clear enough to mean something. You might think that focused and broad are antonyms, but they do not have to be. Focused is on this list for a reason – to make sure your broadening does not take away all meaning.
MISSION – Basically a Summary of Your Strategic Efforts
Think of your mission in similar terms as the military does. It’s the current concrete steps you are undertaking to accomplish a larger vision. There are many missions within one war; there are many missions within one department or overall effort. Your mission is the work you are currently undertaking to accomplish your vision. Your mission SHOULD be strategically updated and adapted over time, but for now, it should be what brings all the elements of your strategic plan together. This MISSION or a slight adaptation to it is the statement you want on your IRS Application for Exemption, etc. where it asks for “most significant activities” since it’s what you are currently doing, but could expand on later.
In our example org, the mission would be “to be a community resource center for those who are blind later in life due to diabetes.” These can change… You may be a state or national resource; you may go digital or mobile and no longer have a center; you may develop new resources that are missing; you may serve those born blind or children or even broaden to serve all who are low vision (due to cataracts or other underlying conditions). However, your underlying VISION is not changed if you expand, refocus, or accomplish projects.
Side Note: Now, the goals and objectives can follow. Goals are what you want to accomplish, while the objectives are the steps that you will take to achieve them. I like to set up each goal to have at least three objectives.
To create a video course for families of individuals who went blind due to diabetes.
Map out the course content
Record the course content
Upload the course content to an online player
Vision: Broad, Clear, Compelling, Focused – On your articles of incorporation and Form 1023.
Mission: current concrete steps you are undertaking to accomplish your broader vision.
Let your vision guide your organization.
Let your mission take concrete steps towards accomplishing your vision.
Set goals to ensure progress on your mission and vision over time.
Set objectives to measure action-related progress.
Bonus Example 2: Tuition-Free Catholic School for Low-Income Inner-City Youth
Vision: To end generational poverty through education
Why: Because education provides structure and discipline and education also increases the likelihood that the individual will have more job opportunities and earn more money
Mission: K-8 Tuition-Free Catholic School with added services to support low-income families (such as government-provided free-lunch programs).