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Vision, mission and purpose statements – what is the difference?

Although the terms ‘vision’‘mission’ and ‘purpose’ are commonly found in strategic plans, there is sometimes confusion over what they mean.

The vision statement describes what the organisation will look like in the future. It serves as a guiding beacon that depicts the kind of future to which the organisation aspires. It also provides direction to everyone in the organisation as they focus their efforts on achieving the vision. The BBC’s vision statement is a good example: ‘to be the most creative organisation in the world’1

A mission statement, on the other hand, describes what an organisation does and for whom. In addition, it can also state the benefit or benefits provided by the organisation. In the case of the BBC, it is ‘to enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’.2

Some strategic plans contain a purpose statement instead of a mission statement. Other plans may contain both a mission statement and a purpose statement. So what is the difference between the two? A purpose statement provides the reason or reasons you exist. It is about why you exist, whereas the mission is about what you do and for whom. The BBC, for example, has six public purposes, which are set out by Royal Charter and Agreement. They are: ‘sustaining citizenship and civil society; promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities; bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK; and delivering to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services’.3

This raises the question of whether you need separate mission and purpose statements. The answer will depend on the organisation. The BBC, as a public institution, sees the need for both. Some organisations find that a mission statement alone suits their needs, whereas others prefer to use a purpose statement. If you want the best of both worlds, you could craft a statement that includes both the purpose and the mission of the organisation. For example, the Canadian Red Cross exists ‘to improve the lives of vulnerable people by mobilizing the power of humanity in Canada and around the world’.4 This statement explains why the organisation exists, what it does, for whom, and the benefits. The Canadian Red Cross chooses to call this statement their ‘mission’, but it could equally have been called their ‘purpose’.

Much of the confusion about terms such as vision, mission and purpose can be avoided if they are defined in your strategic plan. Indeed, the same advice applies to other strategic planning terms you might use and it is worth including a glossary in your plan, so the reader is in no doubt what each term means.

1 BBC, 2015, ‘Inside the BBC: Mission and values’, accessed 2 September 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/corporate2/insidethebbc/whoweare/mission_and_values.

2 ibid.

3 BBC, 2015, ‘Inside the BBC: Public purposes’, accessed 2 September 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/insidethebbc/whoweare/publicpurposes/.

4 Canadian Red Cross, 2015, ‘About the Canadian Red Cross’, accessed 2 September 2015, http://www.redcross.ca/about-us/about-the-canadian-red-cross.