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The good, the bad, and the (kinda) ugly truth about writing vision and mission statements.

- Lauren Armantrout, Intern


Recently I was put in charge of an arts and crafts activity for a children’s festival. My job was simple: to teach the kids how to make butterflies out of coffee filters. Or so I thought. Instead of taking the time to thoroughly understand the instructions it took to achieve the coffee-filter-to-butterfly-transformation, I improvised. The result was a confused twenty-something teaching perplexed tiny humans how to improperly make butterflies, while their equally puzzled parentals observed.


Photo by Muhammadtaha Ibrahim Ma'aji from Pexels

There’s nothing more embarrassing than when small children start to realize you’re a sham. Part of me felt like crying harder than the little boy who just wanted to get his face painted instead of eating lunch with his parents. But then, I had a glorious epiphany. I could just look up the instructions to the arts and crafts project on my phone to refresh my memory.


This clearly monumental moment in my life came to mind because I recently started interning for SmallGood. They work with many small businesses, nonprofits, and just-starting-up social enterprises - all companies and organizations that are trying, in their own ways, to make a positive impact. But just like how I stared at a box full of crafts supplies without a clue of what to do, trying to run an organization without a clear vision or mission can prove daunting. And things can quickly get messy and unproductive.


This is why SmallGood is such a big proponent of crafting a well-articulated vision and mission.


In its simplest form:

A vision statement is your end goal.

A mission statement is how you plan on achieving that end goal.


Photo by ben o'bro on Unsplash

So, for example, if your long term goal is to jump a canyon (please don’t), then you’ll most likely have to have different checkpoints along the way, such as getting fit and practicing longer and longer jumps. In the same way, your mission statement can serve as a checklist for what your company needs to do to reach its long term goal, focusing, as Alyssa Conrardy says, on “the significant work of employees, board members, and volunteers and how your mission contributes to people’s lives.”


And your mission will grow out of your vision, the clear and inspirational long-term change your company is working for.


You might want to start by asking three questions that Ted Jackson suggests for creating a vision statement: 1) Why does our organization exist? 2) How do we do things differently? 3) What should we do to achieve our objective?


Of course there are tons of articles and white papers and whole websites dedicated to this topic, full of great advice (and some really convoluted advice) about how to get to a powerful vision and mission for your business But when it all comes down to it, maybe it doesn’t have to be that complicated.


At SmallGood we believe there are three crucial things to think about when creating a vision and mission statement for a company or organization.


Photo by Tom Swinnen from Pexels

First, be concise.

The truth is that most people will give your statements a less than five second once over before moving on with their day. So when those five seconds are over, they should have it...whatever your “it” is. Now, when you start attempting to articulate your vision, don’t worry too much about the beauty of the words or how many of them there are. Follow the author Anne Lamott’s advice in her classic book on writing well, Bird by Bird. You can always edit and finesse later. As Lamott tells us, allow yourself to write a “shitty first draft.” “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”


After you have the shitty first draft, you edit. And you edit some more. If you are using 12 words to say something, edit it down to six. And then try to edit it down to three. Seriously. Less is more when it comes to this stuff.


Second, don’t be vague.

Some companies have mission and vision statements that may sound wonderful, but don’t have any clear substance. “Creating a better world” doesn’t actually tell me anything about what your organization is trying to accomplish. Everybody wants to “change the world” to a certain degree. But what sets you apart? What part of the world are you changing? Tell me. Spell it out for me. (But be concise about it, please.)


Last, be audacious.

Don’t shy away from setting a big goal. If you shoot for a destination that’s easily attainable, you run the risk of killing your momentum too fast. Make it challenging. Make it feel like a stretch, like a big, bold, hairy, world-changing leap, versus a couple “anybody could do that” baby steps.


So what are some examples of well-articulated vision and mission statements? Of course that’s somewhat subjective but, as a 20-something millennial, a member of that lovely target audience many businesses are trying to reach with their messaging (or hire) these days, I put together my definitive list, using a purely unscientific method: I looked at businesses I particularly admire - ones I enjoy giving my business to - and then I examined the vision and mission statements behind them.


AirBnB

Vision: Belong Anywhere

Mission: Make a home anywhere in the world for people who live outside their home and still feel like they're at home.


What I want to experience when I travel is exactly what AirBnb says they want me to experience in their short but meaningful vision statement: ”Belong Anywhere.” Kudos to AirBnb for keeping their vision statement so concise yet so powerful. In just two words they are able to speak volumes and tap into the deep human need for belonging (something more and more people find sadly lacking in our increasingly polarized world today.) This is the reason AirBnb is always my go-to before I look at hotels. I’m so over the anonymous and impersonal “hotel” experience. And AirBnb has made it their mission for me to feel at home no matter where I travel.


IKEA

Vision: To create a better everyday life for the many people.

Mission: Offering a wide range of well-designed, functional home furnishing products at prices so low that as many people as possible will be able to afford them.


I furnished most of my college apartments with IKEA - and I am not alone - in fact, it’s rare for me to meet anyone under 30 who hasn’t experienced the drama of putting together IKEA furniture at three in the morning. I think the ubiquity of IKEA is largely due to the fact that their vision is specific, not vague. They aren’t trying to create a better life in general for people...only a better “everyday” life. Their mission isn’t particularly flashy, but it’s clear what they are trying to achieve and if you walk into any store and pick up anything they sell you can see it follows the criteria for success laid out in their mission statement.


Photo by Arnel Hasanovic on Unsplash

Southwest Airlines:

Vision: To become the world's most loved, most flown, and most profitable airline.

Mission: Dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and company spirit.


Listen, when it comes to Southwest, I just love those free baggage perks so darn much. And it’s no secret that Southwest’s popularity has universally skyrocketed over the past few years. I think it’s largely because they aren’t afraid to shoot for the moon, they aren’t afraid to stand up and stand out, starting with their vision and mission This is what we meant when we say these kinds of statements need to be audacious. And here’s the thing with putting your audacious vision out there - even if you’re miles away from the finish line, your customers will want to see you succeed, and will definitely want to go along for the ride.


But wait, there’s more:


Patagonia:

Vision: A love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in overall environmental health of our planet.

Mission: We’re in the business to save our home planet.


Patagonia is another company I love and they are also a great example of one more thing to keep in mind when writing a vision and mission for your company.

The world keeps changing. Your company’s vision/mission will probably need to as well.

Patagonia’s mission statement from its inception up until about a year ago was: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”


CEO Rose Marcario made the decision to change the mission statement to reflect the company’s intense efforts to combat recent environmental issues.


You don’t want to be changing your vision every other week, obviously. But you also don’t want to get stuck and be in a place where you’re stubbornly holding onto something that no longer serves you.


Which is why we believe it’s smart for nonprofits, for-profits and social enterprise businesses to take stock of their vision and mission statements on a regular basis. Look at them seriously again every few years and ask hard questions about them. And don’t be afraid to explore something new. Like Patagonia, it probably won’t end up being a total reversal of where you’ve been. But it will become something you and everyone in your company or organization can more fully put their heart and soul into.


Photo by Steven Arenas from Pexels

Finally, and most importantly: walk the walk, don't just talk the talk.


In an age full of skeptics, people are looking for companies they can trust. You don't want to be another company making empty promises. Think about the brands or companies you interact with on a daily basis. Why do they stand out to you, and how can you stand out to the rest of the world like they do?


Crafting an inspiring, challenging and purpose-filled vision and mission for your company isn’t easy. But at SmallGood, we believe it’s worth it. Companies with clearly defined mission and vision statements show higher performance among employees, and generally become more successful organizations overall. A clear vision is good for the bottom line.


But, even with all the blogs and articles and how-to-resources online, figuring out how to powerfully and succinctly communicate your company’s vision and mission and values can still feel like an uphill battle.



But at SmallGood, we can help. Feel free to drop us a line as hello@smallgood.net to talk more about our process (we promise it’s fairly painless).


Oh and you might want to consider hiring me for your next kid’s party. (Please don’t.)

Let's talk.

We're passionate about good companies, products, services, marketing and most of all, good people, who enjoy talking about ideas over a good cup of joe. Check out our blog, follow us, subscribe, or email us.

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