Many nonprofit organizations seek assistance with strategic planning. ACT has found that a successful strategic planning project requires that there first be clarity and agreement on the organization’s mission or purpose.
The organization’s mission must be clear, and agreed to by the major stakeholders, before undertaking a strategic planning process. ACT can help the organization by introducing a process that will result in shared agreement on mission, vision, and values.
The words “mission,” “purpose,” “vision,” “values,” and even “strategy” can hold very different meanings to different people. Each organization must clarify what it means by each of these terms.
The priority is to have agreement among the people involved, not to have “the right definition.” That said, the following definitions provide useful guidance for many organizations.
Jim Collins and Jerry Porras describe a well-constructed vision as being comprised of two parts: a core ideology and an envisioned future.
- Core ideology includes both the essential purpose of the organization, why it exists, and the core values, or what we stand for.
- Envisioned future is made of both a clear picture (vision) of what the organization will become and the major long-term results to be accomplished. (Collins and Porras call these “BHAGs” — big, hairy, audacious goals.)
Once the first three elements are in place, strategic planning can begin.
- Mission/Purpose - A statement of why the organization exists, at the most meaningful level. It is aspirational, in that it can never be fully achieved. In this way, the purpose states why the organization does the work it does, but does not define how that work is to be done.
- Vision - A clear, specific, compelling picture of what the organization will look like at a specific time in the future (one, two, or five years), including those few key metrics that define success. It defines key results achieved and yet to be accomplished, the expected impact to the clients, and it describes specific behaviors that the organization must display to be successful. A clear vision delimits potential strategies; it helps define what’s within or outside of the organization’s bounds.
- Values - The boundaries within which the organization will operate in pursuit of its vision. It is critical to distinguish between core values (those on which the organization will never compromise and is willing to pay a price to uphold) and aspirational values (those that the organization espouses, but has yet to live up to in day-to-day operations). To be meaningful, values must be described in clear behavioral terms.
- Strategy - A clear plan - time- and market-based - that describes the path by which an organization intends to reach its vision. Strategy determines such things as resource priorities, organization structure, and what issues get daily organizational attention.
Putting the Pieces Together
These elements are all part of the organization’s picture of its desired future: The mission defines why the organization exists, what it aims to accomplish, and how it will proceed on its journey, while the strategy specifies the practical steps the organization will take to achieve its vision.
The most important deliverable from this type of project is an engaged, motivated organization, clearly focused on where it’s going and ready to decide how to get there.
The typical deliverables from a Mission, Vision, Values project in a nonprofit organization include:
- Stakeholder agreement on mission of organization, resulting in renewed commitment to and enthusiasm for the organization’s work (most important deliverable).
- A clear, shared picture of what the organization will look like in two to five years, compelling enough to rally commitment of the people.
- Agreement on the (few) core operating values, and the behaviors that reflect them.
- New, revised, or clarified Mission, Vision, and/or Values statement documents. For different organizations, each of these pieces may be more or less important, and agreement on them may differ. Team and organization should choose to revisit and rewrite only those parts that warrant the effort.
Typical Project Steps
- Interview Executive Director (ED) to elicit his or her viewpoint, to establish goals for the process, and to create a list of stakeholders to interview.
- Individually interview five to nine key stakeholders (board members, staff, and other key stakeholders, e.g., donors, partners, govt. agency reps) to assess alignment on mission, vision, and values. If wide divergence appears, additional interviews may be required.
- Hold small focus groups (up to seven people), if needed, to complete the picture. Ensure that people are in different groups than their boss, if possible, to increase the ease of open dialogue.
- Complete mini-assessment of the clarity and alignment regarding the mission, vision, and values, and meet with ED to present findings. If the ED is resistant and unwilling to hear, consider ending the project.
- With ED, design iterative discussions where core stakeholders will clarify their views of the mission, vision, and values for the organization. Provide enough education for the group so that they know what they are trying to do, and why. (See recommended reading list.)
- Design additional communications and discussions to build stakeholder buy-in with additional parties. Help the client plan how to communicate these elements throughout their organization.
- Complete ACT Deliverable.
by Sharon Richmond, MBA ‘88