How Can Your Organization Define Why It Exists…and How It Does Its Work?

By Julia Riseman, Mentor, JCamp 180

Your organization has a Mission Statement. It has to, since a mission statement is required when your organization files its 990 tax forms each year. Your organization might even have a Vision Statement of the future that guides your strategic planning. But have you thought about the importance of crafting a written Statement of Core Values that drives the work your organization does every day?

If you've never been tasked with writing or reviewing your organization's mission, vision, and core values, you might be unclear about the differences between them. Over the past 12 years, I've been helping organization write strategic plans and put into writing these important statements.  Along the way, I've collected some common questions and answers about these statements and how one might to go about writing them.

Question:  What is the difference between a Mission Statement, Vision Statement and a Statement of Core Values?

The Mission Statement should explain the organization's work, who the organizations serves, and why. It is the "current" understanding of why the organization exists. It helps others to understand and be inspired by your good works. 

The Vision Statement is an aspirational statement for the future - a dream. It answers the question, why do we do this work? What problem will we solve? It might be a vision of the future that we will never accomplish, but it is the reason why we all work so hard at it day-to-day.

Core Values are a statement of the common beliefs that underlie our work together even if we differ in other ways. When defined, Core Values can help an organization with decision-making when there is a difference of perspective or backgrounds among people. Core values can also direct the development of program and serve as founding principles. They may also help guide the board and staff in choosing among many pressing priorities. The core values can help shape how we want to spend our time together working with this organization.

Question:  How are these statements used?

Mission Statement is required for grant applications, the website, tax filings, and for defining our organization at this point in time. Legally, your mission statement must be inclusive enough to cover all that you do as an organization. For example, if you run a summer camp and also run an elder hostel on site in the winter, your mission statement must be inclusive of kids and adults.

Vision Statement is needed to understand the direction and ultimate goal of the organization even if it can never be reached in our lifetime. For example, a food pantry in a local community might have a vision of a world with no hunger.

Statement of Core Values is used internally in the organization to align our work, define our values, and state how we want to work together.

In addition, these statements will be used in marketing materials as you promote your organization in the community - therefore they must be strong, inspiring, easy to understand, and short. Core values in particular can help drive the type of content you share on your website, in your emails, on social media, and in your various marketing communications.

One advantage of defining Core Values is that the Board can use them to monitor programs at a high level. For example, if a core value is to "treat each and every person with respect," the Board might ask to evaluate how well the organization does this with clients, customers, and staff, and identify where there are gaps. 

Question: Who writes these statements? 

Typically, good statements have one or two people skilled in writing working on them to keep them feeling "fresh and inspiring." Statements written by committee tend to get clogged up with jargon and extra phases. They can read as if a committee compromised to include everything to please everyone. Without skilled writing, Mission, Vision, and Core Value statements can be really boring. That said, a committee of board and staff members should review it, and the Board of Directors should approve and adapt it. Staff then implements them. 

Question: How often are they reviewed and changed?

Best practices would have the Board review and possibly update these statements every three years, or every time the organization undertakes strategic planning.

Question: Do these statements need to be perfect and include everything?

No. Better to err on the side of simple and easy to understand. If you use them for marketing, you will need statements that are inspiring and compelling. Avoid statements that sound cluttered or vague.

They need not be perfect since they will be updated and revised over time.

Question: Are there any organizations doing this great that we should copy?

Your Mission, Vision, and Core Values should be very specific to your organization. It's more important for your team to look inward at what your organization does, why it is important and how you should do the work.

That said, these organizations have created and shared their Mission, Vision, and Core Values and could be worth a look as you embark on your own organization's process:

Take this opportunity to check your organization's Mission, Vision, and Core Values. Have all three been defined? Are they clear and inspiring? Do they need to be updated? Make sure these vital statements are reviewed and updated regularly.

Does your organization have a great set of Core Values published on your website? If so, please share them with us! Post a link to them or email me directly.