Even seasoned charity professionals can get into a pickle trying to explain the difference between their Vision and Mission statements. Get trustees involved in the discussion and add in Values and Ethos statements and it won’t be long before half the room is tied in knots and the other half is running for the door. But help is at hand! Here is a short summary of useful definitions, you can cut-out and keep for the next time someone (maybe you) gets into a muddle.
A compelling and inspiring description of the difference the organisation will make, e.g. ‘A world in which every child has access to clean water’. This is about your charity’s aspirations and what it hopes to achieve in the longer term; maybe many years into the future. It should infuse the organisation with a sense of purposeful action and motivate others to commit their support.
In the corporate world, vision statements have a bad press – perhaps justifiably. Marketing teams for vacuum cleaners or toothpaste companies may find themselves desperately trying to make the every-day and banal into a ‘noble cause’. As a result, they often create meaningless, glib or even cynical phrases. But in the third sector, a vision for a changed world is what we are all about. So, we don’t need to gild the lily. You can be highly ambitious in your statement, so long as the need you aim to address is a genuine one. Just in case it is not already clear to you, your vision statement is NOT a vision for your organisation (“Operating nationwide by 2020”), but for the change you wish to effect in the outside world.
Mission Statement (or Purpose)
This is a declaration of the organisation’s core purpose. A mission statement answers the question, “why do we exist?”. It may sketch out the core activities you are committed to, for the foreseeable future, but shouldn’t try to be comprehensive or too rigid. However, to avoid too much abstraction, it helps to illustrate with practical examples of what you do. Your vision may change very little over time, but your mission may well need to adapt to account for changing needs, circumstances and opportunities.
Still not clear on the difference between ‘vision’ and mission’?
Well, try putting ‘ary’ on the end of each. A ‘visionary’ looks to the future and imagines what could be possible. A ‘missionary’ is someone who carried out the work to bring the vision into reality.
These explain what we stand for and believe in. Principles, ideals and characteristics that define the culture, standards and aspirations of the organisation. e.g. ‘Professionalism’, ‘Ensuring Fairness’, ‘Working in Partnership’ or ‘Advancing Knowledge’, backed-up by the beliefs that underpin them and perhaps examples of how they will be lived out, both internally and externally.
It’s hard to be original, but avoid single words like ‘Passion’ or ‘Inspiring’ unless you can define them and make them specific. In reality, no one value will be unique to your charity. Your values ‘fingerprint’ comes from how you combine and define them.
Values come from the beliefs held by leaders and founders, which are then adopted corporately. A clearer expression of those beliefs might sometimes be set out in an Ethos statement; particularly in the case of faith-based charities.
Please DO NOT plaster your values statements on huge bill boards around the office. If you do, that is a sure sign they have made no impact and never will. Rather, they are for the more subtle processes of staff induction and appraisals and to help to inform your decision making. It should be a sober thought that the true values of your organisation are those actually practiced and modelled by the most senior members.
Changing, updating or adapting your Vision, Mission and Values (or Ethos) statements
If having looked at your VMV(E) statements you feel that they are not up to the job, then commit to changing them. Here are a few do’s and don’ts:
- DON’T make the schoolboy error of failing to check back to your charitable objects to see what, legally speaking, you are limited to doing.
- DO have a frank and open debate (trustees and executive together) about the strengths and weaknesses of your current statements and new needs.
- DON’T try to write them ‘by committee’, better to assign the job to a proper ‘wordsmith’ in the team. Further feedback can then be taken.
- DO involve staff and volunteers, in test-driving prototype statements, but don’t try to make it a democratic process.
- DON’T use 20 words when 10 will do. In fact, every word has to be able to justify its space.
- DO use the most accessible language you can without ‘dumbing down’. If the statements need further explanation, then you’ve failed.
Tackling miss-matches and gaining consensus
It often helps to have an objective voice in the room, when tackling these sometimes thorny and emotionally loaded topics. I am biased of course, but I would recommend gaining the support of a seasoned consultant to help facilitate this process, to make it as pain-free and productive as possible. Revising your ‘foundational statements’ should be much more than a cosmetic or marketing exercise. It can be the catalyst for re-invigorating your charity and super-charging your business plan.