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The Centrality of the Big 3 Documents in Nonprofit Strategic Planning

I have worked and partnered with many nonprofit organizations that have mission statements (albeit long, truly forgettable ones) but no values or vision statements. Basically, these are organizations who were required to write a mission statement for the IRS, but believe that such a tool is of no practical use.

Let’s make this very clear. Mission statements, vision statements and values statements all have their own, specific purposes.

  1. Values statement: clear and concise (perhaps 1 to 3 words), a well-chosen values statement provides the organization with an anchor against the economic and consumer storms it will encounter. The values statement answers the question, “Who are we at our core?” and “Upon which principles should we base all organizational decisions and know that we are choosing right, even for those questions that have never been asked before?
  2. Mission statement: Also clear and concise (just one to three sentences), the mission statement explains to the world why it needs you. It lays out a problem that needs to be resolved and the pain or frustration it causes society, and then it says what your organization does about it. It is not a goals statement, so it should not include specifics or measurable objectives. Instead, it must be memorable and easy to recite (at least the most critical parts of it).
  3. Vision statement: A bit less concise but no less clear than the mission statement, the vision statement lays out your organization’s destination(s) for the next three to five years. This internal document provides direction in staff meetings, leadership plannings and retreats, and trainings for employees, volunteers and board members.

The following graphic illustrates how nonprofits can be characterized if they are missing one or two of these foundational documents:

Todd R Christensen Consulting-Centrality of 3 Founding Documents

So let’s see how nonprofits might fair if they don’t have all three of these strategic documents:

Nonprofit #1 – The “Out of Gas”-er: NO VISION STATEMENT, but has its corporate mission and values statement. That is the equivalent of saying, “this is who we are and this is what we would like to do,” but not including a destination to its corporate efforts. I call these organizations, “Out of Gas.” Because their destination remains fuzzy, such organizations are at risk of wandering from program to project and back, hoping to find a desirable place to be but never being sure where they are headed.

Nonprofit #2 – The “Drifter:” NO VALUES STATEMENT, but has its corporate mission and visions statements. Their mission and corporate statements may be well thought out and written down. Perhaps they consider the Values Statement to be too touchy feely. Without identifying the underlying motivation for all that the organization and its employees do, we call this organization the “Drifter.” They know what they do and where they want to be in a few years, but changes in the economy, regulatory world, consumer choice or even the environment can easily push them off course. If an organization does not identify who it is at its core, then it can too often be blown about by the winds of change.

Nonprofit #3 – The “Nomad:” NO MISSION STATEMENT, but has its corporate vision and values statements. This is a less common scenario, since mission statements are the most common strategic document in a nonprofit. Still, if this were to happen, I term this organization the “Nomad.” As opposed to the Drifter who moves around from place to place as well, the Nomad is at home with their frequent moves. The Nomad follows the most current obviously available resources in order to some day fulfill its vision. Examples might include organizations that chase the latest grant they hear about, even if it is not a great fit for their organization. Creating a well-thought out Mission Statement means the organization will not be swayed by current affairs to changes its focus. It may still, of course, change its short-term goals and even longer-term objectives based upon changes in its communities, but a Mission Statement gives the organization long-term purpose and focus.

Nonprofit #4 – “Lost without a Clue:” NO MISSION, VISION OR VALUES STATEMENTS. The lists of nonprofits you can find through the IRS, GuideStar, and other curators of nonprofit information are littered with nonprofits that started with hopes to be agents for glorious change but fizzled within just a couple of years. Hope is a powerful motivator, but it is not enough to sustain long-term success. Hope alone does not generate needed funding, nor train competent staff, nor convince lawmakers of the need for change. But add to hope the powerful tools of strategic planning documents, and now you’re talking about the potential to change the world for good.


Nonprofit #5 – The “Navigator:” ALL THREE DOCUMENTS. Nonprofit organizations who put effort and analysis and thought into creating and regularly reviewing their strategic documents empower themselves to plan and reach their destinations. Even if they get thrown off track (lose some funding, have changes in leadership, face regulatory challenges), they have the tools to return to their charted path.

Which of these 5 descriptions of nonprofits fits your organization? Unless you feel that your nonprofit is a Navigator, it is time to give some needed attention to your strategic planning. Submit the form below to learn more about our strategic planning meeting facilitation and consulting services.

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