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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 these terms mean, resulting in ineffective plans and poor execution.The increased stakeholder focus on sustainability and values, emphasises the importance of clarifying these key elements of your organisation’s strategic plan, before operational plans are developed.

This article explores the differences, explains why you need to take time to articulate each element and then looks at how they contribute to organisational success. 

Vision  

A vision statement describes what an organisation aspires be. It serves as a north star pointing to the future state. It also provides direction to everyone in the organisation as they focus their efforts on achieving the vision. It’s reported that during J.F Kennedy’s 1962 tour of NASA a janitor, when asked what he did for NASA, replied “I’m helping put a man on the moon.”1That organisational vision was realised in 1968. 

Consider Nike’s vision statement which is ‘to remain the most authentic, connected, and distinctive brand.’ This gives employees and everyone associated with Nike, clear direction on where the company seeks to position itself within the world of sporting clothes and goods. For OzHarvest, a food rescue organisation, the vision is ‘Nourish our Nation.’2 The aspirational impact of both statements on staff and stakeholders is to galvanise them to commit to this shared future.  

Mission 

A mission statement describes what an organisation does and for whom. In addition, it can also state the benefit or benefits provided by the organisation. For Nike it is ‘to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.’ By classing everyone as an athlete, they cast the net wide and aim to bring inspiration to every person who laces up a new shoe or dons a new pair of shorts. OzHarvest states that its mission is to ‘Fight food waste’. This three-word statement articulates exactly what they do. The 2021 Impact Report states that almost 9.5 million kgs of food was ‘rescued’ from land fill and redirected to produce 36 million meals.3

A clear mission helps direct operational plans. For example, if what you do is to provide the freshest seasonal flowers to your customers, this will guide your planning and purchasing, and your stock rotation protocols.    

Purpose

Some strategic plans contain a purpose statement instead of a mission statement. Other plans may contain both a mission statement and a purpose statement. This can cause some confusion during strategy days and also for employees seeking to execute on the strategic plan. If you are starting with a blank sheet, planning your future strategy, it can be even harder not to confuse mission and purpose.

So, what is the difference between the two? Do you even need both? 

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. This distinction is often difficult to extract from strategic plans or corporate websites. For example, the OzHarvest Impact Report 2021 refers to four impact areas being Feed, Educate, Advocate and Innovate. This could be why they exist. Nike refers to the original goal of serving athletes and their website lists three areas of impact: ‘People, Planet and Play’ which informs their impact report.

The sharp focus on Environmental and Social Governance means stakeholders are demanding to know what your organisational purpose is so that they can judge if there is a values alignment. No articulated purpose is an opportunity missed to communicate with your stakeholders be they customers, suppliers, investors or staff. Further, a clear purpose on your organisational why can provide a compass, as the mission is executed. 

Whether you chose to develop both a mission and a purpose will depend on the nature of your organisation and the activities you undertake. For example, the Australian Red Cross stated purpose is: ‘Bringing people and communities together in times of need and building on community strengths. We do this by mobilising the power of humanity.’ This is what they do. It could also be the why – that is to mobilise the power of humanity. 

Where to now? 

If you wish to review your strategic plan, add a new focus area (such as ESG) or start afresh, it’s important to clearly articulate your vision, mission and purpose. Seeking stakeholder input when developing these can help unearth new perspectives and encourage buy-in. Indeed, the same advice applies to any 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.

Effective Governance provides support to organisations developing their strategic plans. In fact, you could say our mission is to deliver the best governance solutions for every organisation. 

Please contact us directly via our CEO Cate Jolley if you would like to talk about your vision, mission and purpose. 
 


1.The Janitor Who Helped Put a Man on the Moon - From the Green Notebook
2.OzHarvest Book of Thanks 2021 BOOK OF THANKS | OzHarvest
3.OzHarvest Impact Report 2021 FEED | OzHarvest

 

Authors
Dr. Rachel Baird
Specialist Advisor
Rachel is a governance professional with 30 years of legal practice advising corporate clients on compliance and risk. She has served on multiple boards across sport, education, NFP and the environment, helping organisations move to positions of strength....