Your mission, should you choose to accept it

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Many of us would rather get a root canal than go through yet another organizational revisioning process. The question is: Is it still important to have a mission statement in 2012?

The story of Family Services of Hamilton (FSH) offers a cautionary answer. After 84 years of serving clients escaping abuse, the agency closed its doors in 2006, after investigators determined that the agency had developed significant financial and governance problems. In a recent article examining situations like that of FSH, McMaster professor Dr. Chris Bart advised that part of the solution to this sort of mess is that boards of directors needs to be “constructively involved” in the development of their organization’s mission, vision and strategy.

Maybe we can do without it

Sometimes organizations avoid developing such statements altogether. Particularly in groups with a strong culture, it’s tempting to skip the step of articulating vision, mission and values. Jane Logan, president of Logan Strategy says it’s possible for such an organization to do strategic planning without developing mission statements, but it’s unusual to find such a high degree of alignment within an organization.

Further, as Rebecca Sutherns, principal of Sage Solutions says, “It’s not enough to say we know who we are so we don’t need a mission statement – you also need to be able to tell others who you are.” She likens this to school kids having to show their work in math, and says that while it may seem unnecessary, the process actually has significant practical value, for example for securing funding, clients or partners. She adds, “Some organizations are prone to say yes to everything – a mission and vision helps with establishing boundaries around who they are.”

Often, the difficulty is less about the value of the statements and more about the painfulness of the process. Logan says, “A lot of organizations get burned out on creation of mission, vision and values statements. They say, let’s do a strategic plan but say for heaven’s sakes, don’t make me do mission, vision and values again.”

Every person we talked with affirmed the fact that wordsmithing by committee is an exercise in frustration that rarely leads to positive results. Logan suggests a board of directors identify key words and concepts and then, once there is consensus, nominate a team to iron out the wording.

When mission statements go bad

Board members may also be reluctant to embark on this kind of process because, as one person said, “I’ve seen too many organizations where the mission statement is parked in the annual report or the executive director's wall and speaks to nobody.”

Sometimes, too, a mission statement can sound wonderful and idealistic, but is not an accurate description of the organization and what it does. Many organizations create what Mike Meadows, senior manager, corporate citizenship, of Imagine Canada calls “aspirational mission statements” but these must have some connection to reality. Logan uses Enron as an example: while its name has become synonymous with deliberate accounting fraud, Enron’s 1998 annual report states its values as respect, integrity, communication and excellence. Rather than trying to paint a rosy and perhaps false picture, Logan suggests organizations “have to figure out what’s important to you.” She offers Walmart as another example, and says that Walmart does not list quality among its values because “that’s not its thing.”

Mission, vision and values statements lose value, Sutherns says, when they become “so vanilla that they say nothing energizing or specific. You could be any organization.”

Sutherns adds that even excellent mission statements and strategic plans can go bad when a 5-page or 25-page document is improperly distilled down to a one-page document. She says, “The one pager is often the one people remember and live by. It’s important that this short document stays connected to the background.”

Vision or mission?

Sutherns urges clients to avoid getting stuck on definitions or debating the difference between vision and mission and says that the important task is to figure out the core essence of an organization. “It’s your statement, to achieve your purposes and to be helpful for you.” Once this is clear, the wording can be expanded or shortened as needed.

This was indeed the experience of Langs, a multi-faceted community development organization in Cambridge, Ontario, which recently finished a year-long strategic planning process. Executive Director Bill Davidson says, “We developed new vision, mission, identity statements and a credo, and brought them to our board. In the end, we decided all were appropriate – in different settings. We use our mission, vision and values on our website, in our building, in our annual report and newsletters, and at board meetings. But the credo and identity statements give teeth to our vision and mission, and allow for complexity and diversity.”

All the cool kids have manifestos these days

Sutherns notes the tendency of organizations to follow the latest book or guru. At the same time, she adds, “As our culture gets more visual and quick, organizations need to move toward graphical and/or a simple representation of a strategic plan that can be quickly captured.”

Meadows agrees. Imagine Canada itself is using infographics to communicate to its constituency. Other organizations use a word cloud or Wordle visual representation to show their values. While not a substitute for carefully articulated statements, Logan says, “It’s a fun way to communicate some of the powerful elements of what an organization stands for.”

Logan says there’s more danger in having “cookie-cutter statements that are generic templates.” She says that kind of approach “gets formulaic, so why not make it something rich and expressive that you have real ownership in.”

Sometimes, shorter is better. Sean Moffitt hosted a Twitter chat with nonprofits and asked “What’s the coolest thing about your organization’s mission?” Moffitt said, “Based on the quality of responses..., it made us think all company vision statements should be twitterized (short, punchy, emotional, resonating).”

Sutherns says the entire process should be dictated by the culture of the organization. “If an organization has a casual culture, they could develop a slogan accompanied by a history in a more informal way. If an organization is more corporate, they will likely want to develop a traditional mission statement.”

How a mission statement is used well

No one goes into a visioning process with the intention that the statements will only sit on the executive director’s wall, but in order to make sure these documents are used, as Logan says, “You have to live them.”

Sutherns suggests mission statements need to be “a touch-point of organizational life,” visible “on the wall, on cubicles, in performance assessments, in how an executive director reports to the board, how you recruit and orient staff."

Langs developed a strategy map as part of their strategic planning process – using the symbol of the tree from their logo, they described their values at the roots, put their identity statement on the trunk, and included key elements of their strategic plan in the branches. Langs then had laminated placemats made of this strategy map; at each board meeting, every director has a placemat in front of them. The organization also uses a decision-making checklist for potential programs and services, asking each time whether a potential activity aligns with their mission, vision and values.

Logan says these documents should be reviewed regularly to see how your organization is doing, where the gaps are, and how to correct course.

Logan particularly considers values as a key component to an organization understanding how it conducts itself. She says, “When you think of the gazillion things people have to do each day, values are extremely helpful for making decisions. If you pay attention to them – hire people who hold or agree to hold those values – you get a lot of alignment toward those goals.”

Mission and vision statements are also often sometimes required in grant proposals. Like Langs, organizations that have done the work of identifying themselves can appropriately expand or contract their description.

One innovative use for such statements is on a new Imagine Canada website called Charity Focus, designed to help charities describe themselves in more detail than they can in a T3010 description for Canada Revenue Agency. This site allows potential supporters, partners, volunteers and clients to examine both an organization’s finances but also its identity.

In the olden days, no one had to endure a root canal, but instead they lost their teeth. Similarly, organizations functioned for a long time without formalized mission statements, but often suffered from mission drift. Today, funders look for organizations that know exactly who they are and have a clear plan for where they are going. The process of articulating this is sometimes uncomfortable or even painful, but can result in organizational health and smiles all around.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organization tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

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