How to develop a philosophy, vision and mission for your organization

Every organization has a philosophy.

Some organizations make it explicit and write it down. This helps their leaders to craft focused strategies and make decisions during difficult times. It also makes it easier for them to communicate with stakeholders and induct employees into their culture.

But for the majority of organizations, their philosophies are informal and unspoken.

The board and CEO are responsible for articulating the philosophy of an organization, and ensuring that its strategy, culture and operations are congruent.

In this article I discuss the philosophy, vision, mission, purpose and values of non-profit organizations and social enterprises. I provide some practical tips for how to craft these. My insights are based on over two decades of such work.

Every organization has a philosophy

This philosophy underpins how it sees the world and seeks to operate. This philosophy informs all decisions, and sets the strategic direction and operating parameters. 

Most of the organizations I work with embrace a strong philosophy. Consider the three main branches of philosophy. These organizations have thought about: metaphysics (the nature of things, their purpose and why they exist); epistemology (how they should seek knowledge and use logic to further their purpose); and axiology (their ethics, values, what they consider to be ‘beautiful’ or ‘in harmony’).

Some organizations have never articulated, discussed or written down their philosophy. It’s a mirror of their founder/leader’s worldview and values.

But I much prefer for organizations to write down their philosophies and thoroughly interrogate them. Their philosophies may be described as a set of guiding principles. They may have shared them on their websites or embedded them in their founding documents.

The key ingredients of an organizational philosophy include:

  • Why do we exist?
  • What are we seeking to achieve?
  • What approach will we use?
  • What are our values?
  • How do we see the world?
  • How do we see ourselves? 
  • What do we know to be true?
  • What end-state do we consider ‘beautiful’, ‘fair’ or ‘just’? 

An organization’s vision and mission emerges from the foundation created by its philosophy, and these are elicited and developed through deep conversation and reflection. Founders, leaders and key stakeholders need to be part of this conversation. Notes and drawings must be typed up. These will become more formalized and widely communicated over time. 

The same principle applies to leaders who want to change their organization’s philosophy. This is a complex endeavour since it involves shifting the collective paradigm and culture. Depending on the size of the organization, it may require skilled leaders working intentionally together to make this shift over several years. But the benefits will be worth it. It can create a notable transformation in the strategy and impact of the organization. 

Leaders must ensure that their organization lives true to its philosophy. Otherwise all you have is a dishonest or incongruent organization.

If you haven’t written down your organization’s philosophy, then now would be a good time to start.

Good examples of organizational philosophies

I struggled to find good examples of organizations that had shared their philosophies online. I ended up turning to my social media and networks for help. I received 40+ messages, emails and comments of organizations to look up. I received extracts of employee handbooks, Theories of Change, and Manifestos that contained some of what I was looking for.

However, while these organizations were guided by strong philosophies, they tended not to make them explicit or share them online. This is a pity, and a missed opportunity. We should openly share the philosophies of our organizations as it helps people to know us better. It is something to be proud of. For example, if anyone wants to understand my consulting philosophy they can read the “ten principles that guide my strategic work” on my website.

Here are three real-life examples that stood out in my search.

Google has described its company philosophy in “Ten things we know to be true”, which the founders wrote shortly after it started. This includes elements like “you can make money without doing evil” and “the need for information crosses all borders”. I recommend you check it out.

A commentator suggested I look at Hiut Denim Company, based the Welsh town in Cardigan. This company is privately owned and not a social enterprise. But I love how they brand themselves and describe their philosophy in their user manual and story. I think we could learn from how they did this.

The Eden Alternative’s set of principles resonated with me since my parents are elderly and sick, and struggling to hold on to their sense of worth. These principles revolve around the following belief:

“The core belief is that ageing should be a continued stage of development and growth, rather than a period of decline. Building on this new paradigm, the approach affirms that care is not a one-way street but, rather, a collaborative partnership. The Eden Alternative aims to redesign the experience of ageing around the world.”

I felt a bit disappointed with how few South African non-profits and social enterprises shared their philosophies online. I’d love to see more.

A good vision is not about yourself

A ‘vision’ is a statement of a desired future state. 

Businesses tend to write their vision statements in terms of their market positioning or brand. This is a poor practice, because it conveys a shallow sense of purpose. Below is an example that I’ve recently encountered. It has nothing to do with a desired future state for its beneficiaries:

“Passionate people growing great brands” (Spur Corporation)

Sometimes this convention is carried over the non-profits. Below is the vision statement of a large organization I recently worked with.

“To be a leading partner in developing prosperity and sustainability in our identified beneficiary communities.

You should not write a vision statement in terms of yourself. Instead it should be the future state you desire for your beneficiaries or cause. It is the ultimate impact that your organization is striving to achieve. It should ideally be stated from the perspective of key customers, beneficiaries or society at large.

Here are three vision statements that are clearly written.

“A South Africa without hunger.” (FoodFoward SA)

Our vision is of a society where children can grow up strong, safe and happy, where parents and caregivers can create the best possible family setting, so that no child suffers.” (Jo’Burg Child Welfare)

“Quality palliative care for all” (Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa)

These visions are achievable. These three organizations can achieve their visions, providing they make wise decisions and work together with others

Don’t write a very abstract vision statement that your organization can barely influence. Here is an example that I encountered over a decade ago, which I’ve never forgotten. 

“A global Ubuntu” (a small Cape Town non-profit) 

Writing a vision statement

Here is a recipe for writing a vision statement.

A [country/community] where [cause/beneficiary] is/are/have [desired end-state].

Strive to write this statement as as concretely and clearly as possible. Make sure it describes exactly what your organization is aiming to achieve. 

Here are three examples of fictitious vision statements to show how this formula works. I’ve kept the parentheses so you can see where I changed the variables. 

A [South Africa] where the [elderly] are [respected].

A [Khayelitsha] where [people with HIV/AIDS] have [access to live-saving ARV treatment and medical support].

A [community] where [children] can [play safely].

Once you’ve filled in the parenthesis, you can start revising your wording so that the statement sounds and flows better. 

A vision statement must be simple and clear. It must ideally evoke an emotional response. People must instantly ‘get it’. It must resonate with them. They must agree at a deep level that this would be a good thing to be achieved and that it is possible to do so. It must make them want to help achieve it.

A mission achieves the vision

A ‘mission’ is a statement of how an organization will work to achieve its vision.

It should clearly tell us what an organization does and how it is different from others.

Different organizations could share the same vision, but have different missions.

For example, two organizations might aim for people with disabilities to have decent work and be accepted in their workplaces. The first organization might focus on creating inclusive and wheelchair-accessible workplaces. The second organization might focus skills training and internships. It makes sense for these two organizations to work together since they have the same vision. Complex social problems can only be solved by specialized organizations working together.

A mission statement should clearly position the organization in its sector. It should show how it is different or better than similar or ‘competing’ organizations. A well-written statement will assist with branding, marketing and communicating with stakeholders.

While researching this article, I ran across some good examples of mission statements. Here are five that I liked.

“To reduce hunger in South Africa by safely and cost-effectively securing quality food, and making it available to those who need it” (FoodForward SA)

“To promote food security through food and craft enterprise development in rural communities in South Africa.” (Siyazisiza Trust)

“Our mandate is to improve the quality of life for the intellectually challenged, and to evolve the South African societal views and acceptance of these individuals in society.” (Brownies & DownieS)

“Empowering unemployed South Africans to become financially and socially independent, by supporting and nurturing them to start sustainable businesses.” (The Clothing Bank)

“It is our mission to ensure the survival of elephants and their habitats and to promote harmonious co-existence between elephants and people.” (Elephants Alive)

Larger organizations may tend to have more complex mission statements, but I always prefer them to be simple and focused.

Consider this mission statement by World Wildlife Fund (South Africa). I like how it clearly describes the type of work it does. But it will struggle to prioritize all these areas unless it has considerable resources. This is likely to provide the WWF with some strategic challenges. 

“To achieve our vision, our mission – our vital contribution as WWF – is to champion the earth’s capacity, to provide a source of inspiration, sustainable food, water and clean energy for all.

We work to protect our natural resources – oceans, land, wildlife – so that we can continue to benefit from food, energy and fresh water. We work to create a better future of harmonious existence environmentally, economically, socially and individually as aware responsible citizens of the planet.

Working to effect policy and systems of scale, WWF South Africa also influences government and the investment industry to re-direct financial flows away from fossil fuels; we showcase effective solutions in pilot form and lead the way in the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Larger organizations can have mission statements that relate to a geographical area, but I don’t recommend this for smaller organizations as it will spread their focus and resources too broadly. Here is one from Royal Bafokeng Holdings that has a considerable investment portfolio (over R27 billion in 2018).

“To deliver sustainable and predictable income and capital growth to service the intergenerational development needs of the Bafokeng community.”

Writing a mission statement

Here is the formula that I intuitively use when I write mission statements:

We provide [service] to [beneficiaries] so that they can [short-term outcome] and [long-term outcome].

Here are three fictional mission statements I’ve quickly made up using this formula. I’ve kept the parentheses to show where I inserted the information. 

We provide [finance, support and opportunities] to [township businesses in Cape Town] so that they can [survive and grow] and [contribute to the local economy.]

We provide [training and support] to [maths and science teachers in impoverished schools] so that they can [help learners pass] and [pursue a broader range of careers].

We [run campaigns] with [young people at school] to [raise awareness of climate change] and [encourage them to minimize their environmental footprint].

I admit that much of what I’m doing is constructing a good English sentence. I also want to show that a clear mission statement puts parameters on a strategy. It defines what the organization does and does not do.

A closing word on mission statements: they should be as concrete and focused as possible. I’ve never seen an organization disadvantaged by doing this. Yet I’ve seen countless organizations become lost because of their abstract, broad or unrealistic mission statements.

Purpose versus mission

One of my mentors introduced me to the concept of a purpose statement (and organizational philosophies) back in 2005. 

I’ve noticed more and more organizations choosing to state their purpose, either to replace or complement their mission statement.

I believe that a purpose statement is indistinguishable from a well-written mission statement.

So why do I sometimes help organizations to write a purpose statement?

There are two situations where this may occur. The first is when I’m helping an organization that has never thought about its philosophy before. The second is where an organization has a poorly written and untouchable mission statement, which does not position or guide it.

I think it’s a legacy issue. When I joined the non-profit sector in 1996 all mission statements seemingly ‘had to be’ full of words like ‘sustainable’, ‘global’, ‘holistic’, ’empowered’ and ‘integrated’. Unfortunately this bad habit continues to this day. These abstract sentences do not provide clear direction or focus.

Rather than entering into a philosophical fight, I’ve sidestepped the issue. I ‘accept’ the existing vision and mission statement as integral to the organization’s philosophy. I then focus everyone’s attention towards crafting a simple and clear purpose statement. We use this to guide the strategy.

This is much more expedient approach.

Values guide decision-making

A ‘value’ is an abstract noun that describes something of great importance to a person or organization. 

I’m a strong believer in identifying one’s values and using them for decision-making. I’ve had this habit since 1997 when I was first taught how to do a ‘values elicitation’ as part of the counseling skills I was learning. Surprisingly, my values have not changed much since then. I’ve simply refined them and become more aware of them. 

A value can be used as a frame of reference or higher principle against which difficult decisions can be evaluated. 

I like how Oxfam International describes its values:

“At Oxfam, our culture is shaped by our values, which reinforce what we care about and how we do things, not just what we do. Our five core values: Accountability, Empowerment, Equality, Inclusiveness and Sustainability, drive everything we do at Oxfam.”

Values can also be stated more simply. Below is how Senecio describes its values. This organization helps people in the Western Cape that suffer from extreme physical disabilities.

“Respect, care and commitment with integrity”

It is a leader’s job to make sure that an organization lives its values: that these values guide decisions and are part of its organizational culture. There is nothing more frustrating or dishonest than values that are not lived. I notice this much more in businesses than among the organizations I work with.

I’m always inspired by the example of Benjamin Franklin – a founding father of the United States. At the age of 20 in 1726 he listed the 13 virtues that would strive to develop in his character. Each day for the rest of his life he reflected and recorded how we had lived each value.

I tell organizations to stick to a maximum of five values, otherwise their focus starts to get lost.

An organization’s values should be grounded in reality; they can’t be a fantasy. An organization must be willing and able to put them into practice. 

Conclusion

Your organization’s philosophy lays the foundations for its strategy. This foundation must be clear and solid. This will enable you to build a good strategy upon it.

A clear philosophy should set the direction and boundaries for the strategy. This will make the strategy much easier to design. It will also help to communicate the strategy and positioning of the organization.

You can put your organization’s philosophy in its founding documents, governance charters and strategic plans. 

The future will provide you with many very difficult choices. A clear organization philosophy will help you to navigate these choices. It will act as an external reference point, much like a lighthouse would to a ship in the storm.

The good news is that you can change the philosophy of your organization if it does not serve its cause. This requires intentional and artful leadership, and plenty of time. But in the long-term, the benefits will be worth it. 

Individuals can also have mission statements. I’ve been tweaking mine for over a decade, based on what I enjoy and am good at. Here it is:

To have conversations with people and organizations who want to change the world – conversations that cultivate strategic clarity and encouragement.

What is your personal mission statement?

Thanks to Andy Simpson (Imani Development), Dr Roger Stewart (Business Sculptors) and Philip Anastasiadis for their insightful contributions to this article.

In pursuit of strategic clarity

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