Mission and Vision: What’s the Difference?

Both are critical, each is different.

6 min readMar 15, 2022

There is a lot of misinformation out there about these two key components of strategic planning. A quick search on the web reveals countless articles, blogs, and even YouTubes and TikToks that discuss the topic. The problem is that most of these articles are written to generate advertising traffic rather than institutional results. For people who have to live with strategic planning outcomes, it’s critical that mission and vision are carefully constructed, since each serves a different, critical, planning purpose.

Mission is about aspiration.

The best mission statements are active, abstract, and brief. A good mission outlines a calling for the institution and the people within it, but doesn’t specify how that calling is pursued on a daily basis. To me, the acid test for a good mission statement is that it should still apply even if the institution’s current business was rendered impossible or illegal the next day. That means that a school’s mission statement shouldn’t describe the school (or even a school), its programs, or its daily activities; instead it should describe what the school hopes to create in the minds of its students and in its impact on the world. I find it extremely helpful to stop using the word “statement” and instead think about “what is our mission?”

Thirty-five words is a good upper limit, but shorter is better. Remember, this is a business tool, not a self-affirmation or recreational poem. Effective mission statements are brief enough that their language can be recognized when embedded into larger communications. An allusion to the keywords of the mission statement gets a quiet nod from the audience during speeches. Everything from magazine articles to Facebook status updates can provide linguistic links to the mission — if the mission is brief and focused enough to remember. A short mission statement is useful in a way that a long one is not — because it allows the school’s central purpose to reverberate through every channel. It is especially important for the mission to echo inside the organization, and for schools that means parents and alumni should be included. For-profits figured out mission-building a long time ago, as have some big, public non-profits. Here are a few good examples:

  • Smithsonian: The increase and diffusion of knowledge
  • Tesla: To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy
  • AARP: To enhance quality of life for all as we age
  • New York Public Library: To inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities
  • Nike: Bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world
  • American Heart Association: To be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives
  • Patagonia: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis
  • Teach for America: Growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education
  • TED: Spread ideas
  • Amazon: To be Earth’s most customer-centric company
  • Google: To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful
  • Sony: To be a company that inspires and fulfills your curiosity
  • Facebook: Give People the Power to Build Community
  • Microsoft: To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more

Schools are notoriously bad at developing mission statements. Typically, schools develop mission statements that are too long, that are passive and unmemorable, and that repeat the most obvious attributes of the institution. Often these mission statements make the mistake of describing the school as it is today, rather than describing the ideals it wishes to pursue. Private schools often include details like small class sizes, beautiful facilities, and close teacher student relationships… and they all sound the same. These types of statements miss the point: the mission is a way of aligning the interests of everyone at the school in common and unique purpose, and it is a tool — yes, a tool — for reinforcing that alignment every day. Such a statement should transcend the current experience of students and employees and should include a lifelong pursuit from all members of the community, including parents and alumni.

Examples from Schools

It’s rare to find a nice, brief mission from a school, but sometimes you can find it embedded within a longer statement. Here’s an example from Deerfield Academy, in Massachusetts:

Deerfield Academy is an independent secondary school committed to high standards of scholarship, citizenship, and personal responsibility.

Through a rigorous liberal arts curriculum, extensive co-curricular program, and supportive residential environment, Deerfield encourages each student to develop an inquisitive and creative mind, sound body, and strong moral character.

Set in a historic village bounded by river, hills, and farms, Deerfield inspires reflection, study and play, abiding friendships, and a defining school spirit.

A vibrant, ethical community that embraces diversity, the Academy prepares students for leadership in a rapidly changing world that requires global understanding, environmental stewardship, and dedication to service.

Do you see it? It’s in that last paragraph: “Prepar[ing] students for leadership in a a rapidly changing world.” That’s a high quality mission, easily repeatable by school leadership, memorable to every employee, and worthy of pursuit. When working with schools on strategic planning, sometimes it’s necessary to adopt an overlong statement for political expediency (or because of poor examples have been shared as “best practice”); when that’s the case, astute planners and leaders will ensure that a short form like the above example gets embedded, and they’ll use this “short form” whenever possible.

Here’s another example, from Amherst College, also in Massachusetts:

Amherst College educates students of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence.

Amherst brings together the most promising students, whatever their financial need, in order to promote diversity of experience and ideas within a purposefully small residential community. Working with faculty, staff, and administrators dedicated to intellectual freedom and the highest standards of instruction in the liberal arts, Amherst undergraduates assume substantial responsibility for undertaking inquiry and for shaping their education within and beyond the curriculum.

Amherst College is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership — in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.

Where’s the “short form” mission? It’s in the first paragraph: “Seek, value, and advance knowledge … and lead principled lives of consequence.” Good stuff. It’s principled and aspirational — and easily embedded into the day to day communications that bring the community together.

Some folks argue that a Mission should find a way to include your near-term goals, but I disagree. Think about the word: mission is about belief, commitment, and ideals. Do those things change every couple years? Nope! That’s where a Vision comes in…

Vision is about anticipation.

Vision statements are different. They are quite literally “a vision” of the future which captures what an organization will “look like” three to five years distant. The vision should be specific about what changes will be visible within the organization, what strengths will be developed, and what current deficiencies will be repaired.

Vision statements are mostly found attached to strategic plans — but they are not always shared publicly. (Hint: if a place isn’t sharing their vision, it’s probably a good one, because it talks about what needs to change!) While the mission of an institution should undergo very little change over time, each new administration at a school will have new ideas for how that school can take its existing strengths and weaknesses and respond to the opportunities and threats of the changing world. Here again, the language is a guide: it’s considered a good thing when you have a leader who can outline “their vision” for the institution — but few of us want a leader who will redefine the mission of the institution.

A good vision statement should be written in the present tense, and it should be about 350 words — and really no longer than 500. It should not spend a lot of time talking about things that are obvious or “of course.” Most critically, a vision statement should respond to both the organizations internal strengths and weaknesses, and the external opportunities and threats of the marketplace. This last bit — the emphasis on looking at the external market and environment — is the most commonly overlooked item in school vision statements.

Did you hear something familiar in that last paragraph? That bell ringing in your head is the common pattern of SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. While many folks jump at this acronym as a key methodology for understanding organizational positioning, few take the time to realize that its structure covers both internal and external forces. A true SWOT analysis covers INTERNAL strengths and weaknesses and EXTERNAL opportunities and threats — in this way, it covers “who we are” and “what might affect us” respectively. More on SWOT in a future post.

The classic strategic ladder: Values, Mission, Vision, Strategies, Objectives, Tactics, and Tasks.