Ladder smallHenry David Thoreau was spot on: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” When I work alongside social sector organizations, this is where I start. For me, the foundation of any organization, nonprofit or for-profit is its vision, mission and values. You can tell a lot about the organization when you read or experience these three fundamental statements. 

We lovingly call these the “holy trinity” because they are the statements that matter most and should drive all things within the organization, from grant writing and strategic planning to storytelling and volunteer engagement. It is also crucial that staff and volunteers are inspired and driven by these statements. (As a fun side note, in my recent visit to Italy, they have the holy trinity of cooking – onions, celery and carrots called soffritto. And, Italians feel as strongly as I do – their holy trinity is THE base upon which all the other flavors are built.)
Yet, so many get these statements incorrect. This summer marks the 70th strategic plan I have completed in my 13 years as an independent consultant and I have yet to find an organization that has gotten its vision-mission-value statements “just right.” So, we wanted to share our lessons learned with the hope that we can work together to upgrade our collective thinking.
There are seven “deadly sins” social sector organizations make with their vision-mission-values statements:
  • They have one statement but not the others.
  • They confuse the purpose of the vision and mission statement, and these two generally say the same thing but in different words.
  • The organization has changed, but the vision-mission-values statements have not been updated to stay relevant.
  • The statements are different across different platforms – the website has one version, and the grant writer uses another.
  • Their statements are not written uniquely for the organization. They could be statements for anyone with a similar mission.
  • Their statements are too long and/or boring and/or include phrasing that includes “inside baseball” language.
  • Their statements are too heavily focused on donor or client needs and lack meaning for most audiences.
Do any of these sound familiar? And, believe me, I get it. No one wants to lock themselves in a room for hours to debate and wordsmith a mission statement. So, here are some tips on how to better achieve the holy trinity of vision-mission-values statements:
1. Refresh your knowledge of the differences between vision-mission-values statements (see slide with definitions):


Describes the organization’s desired future state of the world (without mentioning the organization itself) / The best vision statements are one-sentence statements that are aspirational, yet measurable, and answer “what does success look like?” The best ones should evoke a feeling of hope.


Describes the organization’s unique reason for existence and its priorities and methods for accomplishing the vision (“unique” meaning that it connects to your unique value proposition) / The best mission statements are easy to memorize, action-oriented and understandable. The best ones should be a roadmap to your success.


Describes the organization’s fundamental beliefs and guiding principles that drive its culture / The best core value statements are often power statements, so employees understand the organization’s DNA. The best ones should be easily put into action and build a unified team around the shared mental model.

2. Rate your current vision-mission-values at an in-person retreat or through a survey. Ask people and allow them to give feedback about what they like and don’t like about each one. We use a simple question on our survey tool as a starting point (e.g., “The current mission is: ________. Please rate your level of satisfaction with this mission.”)  We find that any statement below 80% satisfaction needs a significant upgrade and between 80-100% needs a polish.
3. Then, if folks are dissatisfied, follow the instructions in our step-by-step blogs on vision/mission and values. We use these same steps with our clients with great success. And, it has proven to be a fun, team-building experience.
4. Once you get statements you like, put them together as vision-mission-values. Ask yourself – do these go together? Do they tell a story? Are they uniquely ours? Will they inspire me and others to the cause?
As a side note, if you hire a marketing and/or communications consultant to help you, please share this blog with them. They are likely trained on for-profit strategies that often don’t address the nuance needed in the social sector. When I share my tips, they are often relieved and energized by the challenge.
If you get your holy trinity right and share it widely, I promise you many things in your organization will fall into place. You will inspire donors. You will send clear signals in grant applications about who you are and why you are important to the community. You will send a message to your employees about what matters most in your culture. When you have this solid foundation, “building castles” will be a much simpler and more meaningful experience. If you have recently upgraded your statements, please share them with us! We would also love to share any tips or tricks you have found.
Sign up to receive the Social TrendSpotter e-newsletter
Facebook Twitter Linkedin Email