Unleashing the power of vision and mission statements

Dan Richards-Doran

Copywriter for Science, Research and Innovation

A guide for research organisations

For many research organisations, a carefully crafted vision statement and mission statement can help to lay the foundations for their activities, policies and strategies.

The common misconception is that these statements are developed by leadership teams in committee meetings for the “general public.” Yet vision and mission statements can be most effective when they are co-developed with teams and managers who are knowledgeable about the needs of specific stakeholders, such as employees, community partners, or service users.

This human-centric approach can pave the way for winning hearts and minds internally and externally, as well as helping to differentiate an organisation from others in its sector.

Since both vision and mission are closely related, it’s often easy to confuse them with one another. But they do have subtle and important differences that set them apart.

What is a vision statement?

A vision statement is a picture of how an organisation wants the world to be. It is the future an organisation aspires to create.

Good vision statements focus on the human or societal need, rather than the organisation itself and how it wishes to be perceived or what it wants to look like. They are memorable, vivid, motivating and reach for that high horizon. Vision statements can also include details of who specifically an organisation is serving and why.

In developing a vision statement, it is crucial to be outward-looking. This exercise as an opportunity to consider the broader environment an organisation operates in.

Vision statements that envision a better world:

Crohn’s and Colitis UK:
We want to see improved lives today, and a world free from Crohn’s and Colitis tomorrow.

Glasgow Science Centre:
Our vision is a Scotland where all people feel empowered through learning and engagement with science to make positive differences in their lives, their communities and to society as a whole.

UK Research and Innovation:
Our vision is for an outstanding research and innovation system in the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, enriching lives locally, nationally and internationally.

What is a mission statement?

A mission statement is a roadmap for how an organisation will create the future in its vision. It is the “what we do” piece that focuses on current activities, including details of who and why.

Good mission statements are actionable and measurable. They avoid formal language or “shop talk” that could alienate.

While short and memorable in nature, a mission statement should not just be an empty slogan or strapline. It is a single, goal-orientated and overarching objective for an organisation that gives its vision statement some legs. Some organisations will call this their purpose.

Shorter mission statements can be expanded upon with a series of strategic activities. These outline the approach an organisation takes to achieve its mission or purpose, along with the values it embodies.

Mission statements that guide actions and measurable results:

James Hutton Institute:
To conduct excellent science and engage in new ways of working across disciplines, with business, policy and society, that guide contemporary thought and challenge conventional wisdom, ensure trust, and deliver the best outcomes for all.

Wildlife Trust:
To bring wildlife back, to empower people to take meaningful action for nature, and to create an inclusive society where nature matters.

California Institute of Technology:
To expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.

Infusing vision and mission into organisational culture

After an extensive exercise to develop these statements, it can be tempting for an organisation to simply consign these words to the about pages of their website without considering how to embed vision and mission right across the operation.

Where these statements really add value is in their ability to pave the way for an organisational culture where employees are clear on their purpose and how they contribute.

They can be powerful tools to influence and engage. Vision and mission statements can also support organisations of all sizes to operate with focus and discipline, shaping everything from the development of a brand identity to recruitment and retention strategies.

If developed with staff and other internal stakeholders, a mission can become co-owned by others across an organisation. It can underpin a golden thread of strategic thinking that holds together more complex organisations.

It is the job of leadership teams to take responsibility for monitoring whether their organisation continues to align with their mission, using these statements to inform and validate significant decisions. Regular monitoring can also red flag when it’s time to rethink the direction of an organisation, buying time for employee engagement to garner buy-in. This is particularly pertinent for charities or research institutions, where the availability of funding can lead parts of an organisation off on a tangent, opening up new avenues for growth and sustainability, or new stakeholders to benefit.

Avoiding mission fatigue is a challenge. Repeated messaging without examples to illustrate how an organisation is living up to it’s mission will likely leave staff and other stakeholders believing the entire exercise is simply lip service. Meaningful, genuine engagement that embeds a mission across every facet of an operation and weaves it into the brand identity of an organisation is key.

Amplifying your message and leveraging vision and mission in branding and communications

Vision and mission statements hold significant value as a communications tool, going hand-in-hand with helping to ensure the day-to-day operation of an organisation is strategic.

  • Strategy: For communications teams, your organisation’s vision and mission can be used as a baseline for the creation of goal-orientated communications, marketing and PR strategies that help to achieve the objectives of an organisation.
  • Messaging: Ideally, the statements themselves should not be pasted liberally across an organisation’s channels. They can, however, be used to inform compelling content, concise and engaging straplines, tone of voice, calls-to-action and brand identity.
  • Engagement: Newly updated vision and mission statements serve as a useful engagement and dialogue tool for both internal and external stakeholders. Use them as a springboard for a series of talking points that delve into the activities, impacts and direction of an organisation.
  • Change: Vision and mission statements provide the crucial vision piece that is often missing when a leadership team makes a difficult decision and needs to communicate it. These can include relocations, scaling back operations in response to a shifting external environment, or focusing resource on a particular area of delivery.  An understanding of why change is needed and how it is aligned with the vision or mission of an organisation is an important part of any effective change communications strategy.
  • Framing: Leadership teams can sometimes request to see a newly developed mission and vision statement at every touch point. Their framing as a “statement” can come across as rather formal or even disingenuous to some. In this situation, look for more creative framing that meets both the needs of stakeholders and the demands of the CEO.

A quick test: Does your existing mission statement work for you?

  1. Say it out loud
    Is it easy to say? Is it interesting and jargon-free? Does it roll off the tongue?
  2. Test how memorable it is
    Does it capture attention? Are you bored before you even finish saying it? Test this by having an employee or a friend read or hear the statement, then ask them to repeat it later. Is this the first time they have heard it?
  3. Get feedback
    Get feedback from multiple people across your organisation and your external stakeholders. Ask them if they understand it and if they have suggestions for changes. Do they think the organisation lives up to its mission and can they provide examples?
  4. Check how many other non-profits do the same
    If it seems like other non-profits are doing the same, change it. Your organisation does something different than others – or at least it should. This could be as simple as updating your statement with your locality or a particular stakeholder group you serve. Doing this will help to set you apart from others in your sector.


Cover image courtesy of Nik on Unsplash

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