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Backing Into a Mission

LOTS OF PEOPLE WILL TELL YOU (myself included) that an overarching organizational mission is the logical starting point for developing a course of action.  The deep understanding of the need an organization can fill, along with the resulting impact from filling that need, typically form the bedrock for the planning, programming and evaluation that is to come.  But I'm willing to bet that there are loads of nonprofits who find themselves meeting a need and making an impact without ever fully articulating a mission statement (or a vision statement, for that matter).
An arts organization I'm working with may be a case in point.  The founder, who is no longer on the board, but occupies a revered place in the organization's universe, has an extremely articulate and sophisticated idea about the importance of integrating the daily artistic process with the public.  The result of her desire became a successful grassroots artist project that eventually, for reasons having mostly to do with managing a bunch of artists working in donated spaces, morphed a few years back into a formal nonprofit.  Small and creative, what was once very intuitive is now more structured and layered with concerns about staffing, funding, and board development.  They've decided it's time for their first-ever written strategic plan.
The day we spent together recently focused on their vision for the organization's foreseeable future, not laboring over crafting a mission least, not until the very end of our time together.  I wasn't too worried, though.  They'd spent their best time thinking about external realities and what they wanted to do with their programming in light of those realities.  Their founder was also in their midst acting as an important and reassuring touchstone for the group.  (Would that every founder be so open-handed!)
While one or two board members expressed concern that we hadn't started with a discussion about mission or impact, by day's end, it seemed clear to me that their revisioned mission statement would flow seamlessly from what and where they wanted the organization to be -- particularly true for an organization that was in many ways reaffirming its founder's guiding idea.  Actually, this example may be more about "back to the future" than "backing into a mission."
In fact, I wasn't planning on asking the group to work think about the mission statement at all, but I reconsidered thinking it wouldn't hurt to capture some key words and phrases for some future mission-writers to draw upon.  Much to my surprise, the words and ideas spilled over several flipchart sheets.  At the end of the day, the group had strung together enough desired vocabulary for a couple of wordsmiths to further polish.  As I reflect back on the course of the day, I don't think it was a mistake to leave mission writing until last.


MMH said…
I agree with leaving the mission until the last. Our last strategic planning session about a year ago saw many of our board members getting vision and mission confused. Every time the session leader wanted to talk about mission, the ideas were really vision not mission. Had he led with vision and then mission, I think many of our board members and the staff would have felt that more had been accomplished.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Since planning is about the future, it requires getting clear about a desired result, no matter if it's one month or ten years ahead. For me, that's where the vision resides. Once that takes shape, it's time to return to the mission to ask if what the organization is doing right now supports the impact it wants to make over time.
Laura Roberts said…
I have generally found that spending a great deal of time wordsmithing at the beginning takes all the momentum out of planning. If an organization has a strong shared sense of purpose, that's all you need for robust planning... so I spend some time making sure that's right, but don't do the hard crafting of a statement until near the end. I tell them, you have a mission, you just don't have a mission statement yet!
You're so right about wordsmithing as an energy drain, Laura. It's tough to do individually, much less as a group. But it is made easier once the group has had a healthy conversation around purpose and impact.
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