Big What vs. Big Why = Mission vs. Vision

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Planning: Strategy & Workforce


For the last couple of years we’ve really pushed hard to keep our mission at the fore. It’s our lighthouse, our beacon. It keeps our entire team (both paid-with-money & paid-in-other-ways) on course and shining a bright light on the road ahead.  Our visitors hear our mission statement often, and see it as soon as they walk in our doors: we inspire and build leadership in the voluntary sector. 

All paid staff, board members, most of our knowledge philanthropists and many of our customers can recite it verbatim. Some of our customers tell us they can do so even when they can’t recite the mission of the organizations they work for! I’m in awe of this one. We must be doing something right. It’s our “Big What” and people seem to get it [insert applause]!

But have we gone too far?

Our mission rolls off our tongues so readily. How can that be a bad thing? When I spoke recently at Vancouver Foundation’s Community Conversation on the topic of "belonging", I decided to start with Vantage Point’s vision instead of mission. It felt foreign to start with our vision for a change: that every community mindfully engages passionate citizens. This is our “Big Why” and it is indeed much more compelling than the “Big What” – to me and to those that were in the room that day.

We’re so in the thick of what we’re doing that the why is sometimes overshadowed. Our mission informs our day-to-day decisions and actions. Don’t get me wrong – it should. And, yet, the most significant opportunity to generate raving fans and to inspire supporters (paid staff, knowledge philanthropists, funders, donors, etc.) lies in why we exist.

The opportunity is to find the balance. Our mission, our lighthouse, remains critically important. Yet, we must never lose sight of the reason the lighthouse exists in the first place.

About the Author

After working in London and completing her MBA at INSEAD in France and Singapore, Maria Turnbull joined Vantage Point’s team in 2006. Rooted in the not-for-profit sector through numerous leadership roles with the British and Canadian Red Cross Societies, OXFAM and Amnesty International, Maria loves...


Heather van der Hoop's picture
Heather van der Hoop (not verified) on

So true! It's so important to be able to refer back to the "why" to ensure that new ideas and all the associated actions are tied to that goal. Otherwise, it's easy to get lost in the newest fad or tangential activities. Great post!

Virginia Brown's picture
Virginia Brown (not verified) on
Interestingly, my organization has been grappling with the difference between the two. We've also been uber-focused on mission and some have felt the lack of focus on vision to be a problem. We're trying to address that now and your discernment on the difference between the two is helpful. Great post, Maria!

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