What Comes Before Mission and Vision?

I’ve recently had the good fortune to work on several strategic planning projects, helping clients chart their course for the future. These projects begin with an organizational assessment – collecting stakeholder feedback to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats – and culminate in a road map that defines strategic priorities and the tactics, resources, and accountabilities needed to achieve them.

What gets me most excited about strategic planning efforts, though, and what I consider the “real meat,” is the discussion we have about mission and vision. Before diving into these very “nonprofit-y” concepts, I like to pose a single question to participants. This concept, called Question Zero, is discussed in Harvard Business School’s Entrepreneurship in the Social Sector, so named because it should come before all other queries an organization needs to consider.

So, Question Zero is simply, “What, exactly, are we trying to accomplish?” Sounds easy enough, right? However, when stakeholders are asked to answer this question, their responses vary widely. Is the purpose of an animal shelter to rescue abused or neglected cats and dogs? To find homes for animals in their care? To reduce unwanted populations by spaying and neutering?

Most often, nonprofits are trying to achieve multiple objectives. Each of the above responses may be valid, but Question Zero gets at the heart of the organization’s work. What is the primary focus? What is secondary? Question Zero provides a framework for leadership to identify priorities, and it tells the organization what to measure to evaluate its work.

Once consensus is reached on Question Zero, the vision and mission become more evident. An organization’s vision lays out its desired impact or end state for those affected. The vision directly relates back to Question Zero: What are we trying to accomplish? What impact do we want to make? The mission defines what you do, why you exist, who you support. It’s the practical, tangible context in which leadership makes decisions about the organization’s activities which, again, tie back to Question Zero.

As Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated, “The most common form of human stupidity is forgetting what we were trying to accomplish.” So, when it’s time to review your organization’s strategic direction, rather than jump right into mission and vision, start with Question Zero and see how in sync your leadership truly is (or is not).

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