Mission, Vision, and Core Values (Now with 100% More Parable!)

Mission Statement, Vision Statement, Core Values Statement, Mission, Vision, Core Values, Mission Statement vs. Vision Statement, What’s the difference between a mission statement and a vision statement?

A Parable

Imagine a bustling 19th-century New England seaport. The docks are teeming as tall-masted ships from around the world load and unload cargo. Payments are exchanged and new deals made. You can hear a half-dozen different languages spoken and shouted. People of all colors and sizes, and in all manner of dress, scramble around the busy piers.

Now imagine a young man of seventeen walks into the scene. His name is Jim and he has traveled from his home village, a three-days-walk away. Ever since Jim was a boy he’s dreamed of becoming a sailor. While he doesn’t have much experience — just a summer spent working on an uncle’s fishing boat — he is strong, a hard worker, with good references. He is also intelligent and eager to learn. The time has come to follow his dreams.

Jim is in luck. As it turns out, there are two captains willing to hire him on the spot. Both seem like trustworthy men and — as far as our inexperienced young hero can tell — their ships look sturdy and well cared for. He has to choose between the two and so he decides to get more details.


“I can offer you $60 a month and one percent of the profits,” says the first captain. He is tall, well-built, and obviously used to being obeyed. He also has a distracted air. His attention is somehow everywhere and nowhere at the same time. “Sign here,” he says. He holds out a quill and parchment but doesn’t look at Jim, just barks an order to someone on the gangplank leading up to his vessel. 

“Actually,” says Jim, “I have a few questions.”

That catches the captain off-guard, and so he now turns his full gaze on this self-assured “kid” in front of him. The captain’s eyes narrow almost imperceptibly. “Do you?”

“I do. Where are you bound?”

The captain shrugs. “We’ve been in port for nearly a month waiting to learn our next move, but we haven’t heard anything from the home office yet. We may just head down to Boston to see what’s what. Every day that we sit in these docks costs me and my crew time and money. I’ve already lost six good men to other ships, which is why I’m able to offer you this job. Sign here.”

But Jim isn’t done. “What is the purpose of your voyage?”

“That depends too,” says the captain. “One of our stockholders will hear about a load of valuable cargo somewhere and we’ll go get it. We bounce from port to port, but the money is good. Speaking of, I doubt you’ll find better wages than I’m offering you now…and I will give you two months in advance.” 

“Just one last question,” Jim says. “What will be your expectations of me?”

The captain is now clearly annoyed. “Your job will get sorted out along the way, once I see who we’ve got. I have five other people to hire, remember. Now, are you going to sign on or not?”

“I’ll get back to you,” Jim says. The captain stands there stunned as Jim walks toward the other ship from which he has a job offer.


The second captain is around sixty-five-years-old, though it’s hard to tell for sure because his skin is like tanned leather from a life spent in the sun and the wind. Even still, the captain’s eyes shine with good humor and an unmistakable zeal for the sea. 

Jim asks this captain the same questions as the first.

“Where are you bound?” 

The captain grins with anticipation. “The Oregon Territory. We sail south with the tide, stopping in ports from New York City to Charleston. Through the Caribbean. Along the eastern coast of South America, and, if we survive, around Cape Horn. Then north to Peru, Mexico, California, and finally Oregon. We’ll retrace our steps back here with a ship full of furs and whatever else we pick up along the way. The journey will take at least two years. It may take up to three.”

“And what is the purpose of the voyage?” 

“Fortune, of course!” laughs the captain. “Is that what you want to hear? Ah, but fortune is fickle. Our journey will be incredibly dangerous and the hardest work you’ve ever done. For sure I can’t pay you what you’re worth: just $40 a month and one percent of the profits. But I promise it will be the greatest adventure of your young life. We will all, in every way, be pushed to the absolute limit, and this crew will become your family and you’ll see sights more wonderful than you ever imagined.”

Though Jim realizes his income on this ship would likely be less than the other, he can’t help but smile. “And what are your expectations of me?”

The captain nods. “To care for your fellow sailors, to pay attention (for your own safety and everyone else’s), and to learn. I make it a point to teach. You’ll start near the bottom, for sure. You’ll wash the decks, mend sails, help where needed, and generally do what needs doing. But by the time we reach this port again, there’s not a job on this ship you won’t know how to do with skill. From here, you’ll be able to find whatever work you want and on any boat. Or you can stay on with me. Most do. It’s rare I have a spot open. There’s a lot of interest in this position but I think you’re the right man for it. Do you have more questions?”

“Just one,” Jim says.

“And what’s that?” asks the captain.

“Where do I sign?”

Three Questions Every Employee is Asking

Let’s get this out of the way: I obviously know next-to-nothing about 19th-century maritime trade. 

Still, I wrote this parable because it illustrates the power of having a well-crafted mission statement, vision statement, and statement of core values. 

In an episode of the EntreLeadership podcast, Donald Miller, bestselling author and the founder of the innovative marketing firm StoryBrand, said that a company’s mission statement and core values — and, I would add, its vision statement — should answer three questions every employee is asking:

  1. Where are we going?

  2. Why does it matter?

  3. What is my role?

These are essentially the three questions Jim asked his two potential employers. The first captain couldn’t say exactly where they were going, why it mattered, or what his expectations were for Jim. In contrast, the second captain knew exactly where his ship was bound: the Oregon Territory then back to New England. He knew the purpose of the voyage. That purpose included the chance not just to make a living but to make a life. He was offering Jim an opportunity to belong, to join an adventure-in-progress, to test his own limits, and to see the world. And the captain was able to lay out clear expectations for Jim: to be a good crew mate, to be attentive, and to have a teachable attitude. 

Jim found the second option so compelling that he was willing to make less money for the chance to be a part of it. This is the case in the real world as well, where recruits are increasingly prioritizing high purpose over high pay.

(Note: Miller’s version of the mission statement answers both the first and second questions. He says that “The mission statement is the plot of the story you’re inviting people into.” One reason I separate the mission and vision into two statements is because, in the nonprofit world, many grant funders ask for both.)  

Everything we do — literally everything — is a reflection of our organization’s mission, vision, and core values. This is true whether we intend it or not. And it can work either for or against us. If our mission, vision, and core values are unclear, so will be our marketing. If they are unfocused, we’re more likely to chase after fundraising dollars that will take us off-track. 

On the other hand, if the mission, vision, and core values are clear and concise, our programming, messaging, hiring, and fundraising should all improve.

It’s like Miller said on the podcast: “If you ask people to show up every day and you don’t tell them what we’re building, why it matters, and where it’s going, you are really hurting that person’s mental health….The positive is, when you get the mission statement and core values right, you motivate [and] inspire a team, you unify a team, and you immediately increase productivity and efficiency.”

Mission & Vision: What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between a mission statement and vision statement? And where do the core values fit in?

I summarize it this way: A mission statement is what you do. The vision statement is whyyou do it. A core values statement is how you do it. 

In three subsequent posts, I will describe in more detail how to write great mission, vision, and core values statements. In the meantime, here is a bit more information about how the three pieces are distinct from one another and yet are inseparable too. I’ve also provided a summary chart below.

Mission Statement

A MISSION STATEMENT answers the question, “Where are we going?” Without a great mission, your organization’s destination is unclear. You will drift. Your staff, volunteers, and donors, as well as the communities you serve, will experience uncertainty. In contrast, with a good mission statement, all your stakeholders will know exactly WHAT you do. In other words, you’ll have a Plan.

Two examples:

  • charity: water is a nonprofit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing countries.

  • The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends.

Vision Statement

A VISION STATEMENT answers the question, “Why does it matter?” Without a compelling vision, your organization’s motivations will be unclear. Your team will experience some apathy. But with an excellent vision statement, everyone will know WHY you do what you do. In other words, you’ll have a Purpose.

Two examples:

  • One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education. (Teach for America)

  • We envision a world where all people – even in the most remote areas of the globe – hold the power to create opportunity for themselves and others. (Kiva)

Core Values

A CORE VALUES STATEMENT answers the key question, “What is my role?” Our word rolehas its roots in the French theatre, where it referred to the roll of paper on which an actor’s part was written. By “role” I’m not talking about a job description but rather about how each individual relates to the rest of the team — staff and volunteers, the people you serve, and even how they present themselves as your ambassadors to the community-at-large. This is about culture. To return to the stage metaphor, this is about how one actor relates to the rest of the cast and crew, and the spirit with which they take the stage. 

Without core values, your organization’s expectations will be unclear. Your team may be experiencing a certain amount of passivity. But with a good core values statement, everyone will know HOW you do what you do. In other words, everyone will have a Part.

For example, Donald Miller’s company, StoryBrand, has identified three core values, ranked in order of importance:

  1. Be the guide

  2. Be ambitious

  3. Be positive

Mission, Vision & Core Values: Summarized


What’s Next

My challenge to you is to take a fresh look at your organization’s mission, vision, and core values statements. 

Is your mission clear about WHAT you do? Does it answer the question, “Where are we going?”

Is your vision compelling as to WHY you do what you do? Does it answer the question, “Why does it matter?”

Do your core values give voice to the culture you want for your team — i.e. HOW you do what you do? Do they answer the question, “What is my role?” 

If any of your guiding statements feel flat now, don’t panic. Through the rest of this series, I’m going to give you the tools you need to write or revise mission, vision, and core values statements, a process that could transform your organization.