Difference between mission and vision

Facilitating Meaningful Differences between Vision and Mission

As a facilitator I work with a range of social sector organizations on strategic and business planning processes. In my work, I often encounter ambiguity about the difference between a vision and mission statement.  In some cases, I will hear an executive director or board chair say something like, “Our vision and mission are so closely related we don’t distinguish between the two.”  On one occasion an executive quipped, “to create our vision statement we just randomly removed words from our mission statement until we had a vague sounding lofty goal.”  While a quick search of the web will reference dozens of blog posts and websites offering the conceptual differences between vision and mission, there is often little discussion of the practical difference between mission and vision. As I see it, the problem is that in a typical planning process the mission and vision (along with values) are lumped together as a first step in plan.  It is almost as if they are a hurdle to surmount before a team or agency can “get to work on what needs to be done.”  In this post, I want to describe why the differentiation between vision and mission is important and how the two concepts need to be uncoupled in the planning process.

At the risk of over generalizing, many references and books discussing vision and mission have the tendency to describe the two concepts as if they were distinguishing between goals and objectives.  I have written about the differences between goals and objectives and suggested that a goal is the “upstream activities” necessary to create “change that matters” and that an objective is the work in front of you that gets you to start moving towards your goal. While there is a parallel short-term and long-term thinking associated with the discussion of vision and mission, it would be a mistake to use the paired concepts interchangeably.

There was a time when a vision might have been thought of as nothing more than a lofty goal.  In the business sector such a mission might have been something like, “We want to be the first choice for luxury cars purchased in America,” or in the social service sector such a vision/goal might have been, “We strive to be the preeminent substance abuse treatment provider in the region.”  However, I firmly believe that equating a vision with a lofty goal is inadequate to clearly define the aspirations of an organization today.  In the private sector “vision” is increasingly framed in the language of a triple bottom line, “people, profits and planet.” In the nonprofit and social service sectors, a vision of organizational success must give way to the larger “upstream” thinking that boldly proclaims the deep social impact created by the agency.

As a result, a facilitator needs to assist the organization of today in identifying a clear and compelling vision statement.  Such a vision is the response to the social need and context in which an agency operates.  For example, if an agency is working to decrease the “youth violence” then a vision statement is about more than providing youth diversion activities because the prevention of youth violence inherently is not only about youth “behavior.”  In addition to behavior, youth violence is also about many socio-economic and geopolitical disparities which also need to be within the organization’s “field of vision.” I have written previously about strategies for facilitating the development of a social impact model, but the point applicable here is that  a compelling vision starts with a current and urgent social need and tells the story of how the social need of tomorrow will be different than it is today.

So if the function of an organizational vision is to declare the future social impact of the organization, what purpose is served by the organizational mission?  A mission is also connected to the social need but is the proximal response the changing landscape.  While the core of a strong mission is grounded in the principles and values of the organization, it also references the strategies that are used to confront the compelling social needs. A mission statement is the head and the heart of an organization and serves as the lens through which organizational programs and strategies are viewed.  As such, a mission statement should be closer to the social need rather than the visionary social impact.   A mission statement evolves as the social need evolves while also remaining anchored to the vision. In this context, a facilitator also has a role for helping an organization understand its mission as well as its vision. This need to clearly define and differentiate between the concepts of vision and mission becomes apparent when one introduces program strategies.

In between the mission and vision, is the “white space” where the organization builds its program strategies.  The following illustration creates the linear process:

Social Need ==> Mission ==> Programs/Strategies ==> Vision of Social Impact.

While a bit oversimplified (there are feedback loops and outcomes in the model), the point that I wanted to make is that there is conceptual “distance” between a vision and mission.  For those engaged in strategic and business planning, this spatial relationship is entirely practical.  By situating the mission close to the social need and anchoring the vision to the social impact, a facilitator has the room to help an agency orient its programs and services more strategically. The program strategies become the link between the organizational mission and the organizational vision.  By placing program strategies between mission and vision, the strategies can be more effectively assessed relative to how they well they serve as a the causal link between two. In other words, it is only if you are clear about the social need, the mission and the vision, can one assess the appropriateness of the program strategies.

Again, as I scanned some of the blogs and websites that discussed the differences between Vision and Mission I was struck by how often the differentiation between the concepts was ignored or oversimplified. I have contended in many of my posts that the highly effective nonprofit organizations think systemically and strategically. Facilitating meaningful differences between Vision and Mission is a critical dimension of a systemic and strategic planning process. Mission, supported by strategic programming moves an organization towards their true vision and, in the end, such movement is the core of a strong facilitation process.

As always your feedback is welcome.

~ Mark

Photo Credit: Hans Braxmeier



Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.