Many of us in the charitable sector are either ignorant or lazy when it comes to defining and articulating our vision and our mission statements. We mix them up, speak in jargon – and utterly fail to clarify the importance of our cause and the work we do.

Here’s what I mean

Let me share an example with you. My wife works for the United Way here in Ottawa. Last night she attended the annual general meeting of a social service agency that works with the homeless. She had my Jeep yesterday, and when I got in it to drive to work this morning, the flyer for the event was on the passenger seat.

Being the curious type, I picked up the flyer and had a look at it.

My reaction was a big “UGH! – there’s another botched job.” The flyer highlighted the vision and mission statements of the agency. It read,

Our VISION is to provide leadership and support to end homelessness.

Our MISSION is to offer permanent housing and supports to assist people at risk of homelessness live independently and enrich their lives.

Let’s break this down and see how this agency got it wrong.

Vision describes, mission defines

What is vision? Put most simply, it’s a description of the world when your cause is cured. The cause here is ending homelessness. Therefore, this organization’s vision is simply a descriptive statement of what that world looks like.

Providing leadership and support (as they’ve articulated) has nothing at all to do with vision. This organization is forcing its presence into a vision statement where the organization just doesn’t belong. Added to that, I think that the phrase “leadership and support” is pretty vacuous and close to meaningless.

All in all, this vision statement is terrible. Maybe they could say it this way:

Our VISION is a city where everyone – no matter what their means or circumstance – has a safe, warm place to call home.

In my mind at least, this statement describes the outcome of the work. Simple, isn’t it?

While the vision describes the world where the problem no longer exists, the mission defines the work the organization does to achieve the vision.

If we look at the original mission statement, we find the phrase “live independently and enrich their lives.” This is, in fact, more visionary than mission-based. Again, they’ve confused the purposes of vision and mission statements.

I’d prefer this organization’s mission statement to read more like this:

Our MISSION is to provide permanent, affordable housing to those at risk of homelessness. Furthermore, we offer support programs that help our clients acquire the skills required for truly independent living.

Four steps to sort out vision and mission

This month’s tip is really a four-point checklist for getting your vision and mission straight. Here goes:

  • Does your vision statement describe the world when your cause has been accomplished? The vision statement paints a picture of the world. There is no action in this statement.
  • Does your vision statement make any mention of your organization – or the work you do? If it does, take it out! Your organization has no place in vision.
  • Does your mission define the work you do? (It should use active language.)
  • If your mission statement describes outcomes, take them out! (Outcomes are visionary.)

Why not run your organization’s vision and mission statements against this checklist and see how they fare? I’d love to hear what you find!

P.S. I’ll add one final thought. To me, superb vision statements are inspiring. (Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech is a superb example of this.) Superb mission statements are motivational. Someone should read your mission statement and want to sign up as a donor or volunteer on the spot.

This article originally appeared at Hilborn: the leading provider of information to Canada’s nonprofit sector