What’s a mission statement? What’s a vision statement?

Over the years, we’ve seen well-intentioned people cause strategic planning sessions to grind to a halt as they try to bend the group to their personal definitions of “mission” and “vision.” Somehow the words and concepts have become jumbled, and the result is that way too much time is wasted on terminology rather than on moving the process forward.

Mission statements

Today we generally find agreement that mission statements should say in as few words as possible what good you do and for whom. The mission is your purpose for being. It doesn’t describe how you do the work. It articulates what your organization exists to do: “Our mission is to house and feed the homeless,” or “Our mission is to provide home builders in Eastern Maine with products and expertise.”

The mission statement should not be confused with a slogan or an advertising tag line—it is a statement of purpose that tells anyone who reads it why your organization exists. And while we’ve seen mission statements that run-on for several sentences, there is general agreement today that shorter is better, with some suggesting your mission statement should be able to fit comfortably on the back of a business card.

Start any discussion of creating or revising your mission by asking everyone in the room to write, in 10 words or less, your organization’s purpose for being—or, “what good for whom?” Compare the results and you’ll be likely to find the essence of your mission.

Vision statements

The vision statement seems more fraught with varying interpretations. We tell our clients to think of the vision statement as a “word picture of your desired future.” As such, you may need several sentences, or even two or three paragraphs, to paint your picture. The goal here is for anyone reading it to be able to clearly envision your future.

Unlike the brief mission statement, we’re comfortable with a longer vision statement because we see it as a great tool for speeches, fund-raising letters, the orientation of new board members, or for any moment where you want to talk about where you want to head and why you need people to join you on your journey. Ideally, you want anyone who reads the vision statement to think, “Yeah, that’s where I want to go too.”

Whether you agree with our definitions or not, we encourage you to take time to work with your organizational leadership to develop a short statement of purpose that tells why you exist and what you exist to do. Create another statement that helps people appreciate where you are heading and just how exciting the future could be if they would only join you. Together those statements of mission and vision will provide some essential direction to any organization.

Both “mission” and “vision” are important elements of any strategic planning process. You’ll find even more planning advice, as well as an overview of Starboard’s strategic planning approach and services, on the Starboard Leadership Consulting web site: www.starboardleadership.com.