What’s Your Nonprofit’s Body, Heart and Soul?

nonprofit's mission

Mission. Values. Vision.

Organized, they become your brand, and your singular and compelling case for support.

Together they drive everything your nonprofit does today. And everything you will do tomorrow.

They are your body, heart and soul.

Combined, they define your essence.

They are how you are known in the community.

And how you will come to be known.

Sartre famously wrote “existence precedes essence.” Applied to your organization, this means the fact you exist is inconsequential absent becoming known – really known – for standing for something people value and find critically important. Sartre’s philosophy began with the human being. Philanthropy translates from the Greek as “love of humankind.”

Voila! Sartre would say you are free to pursue your essence by finding your purpose – aka, your mission, values and vision. Focus on what you do, how you do it, and why that contributes to the good of all humanity. And, thereby, help others find their purpose as well.

  • Mission = What you do
  • Values = How you do it
  • Vision = Why you do it

There is nothing more important than the mission, values, vision triad.

Yet many nonprofits are fuzzy on these fundamentals.

I’ll ask at a board meeting for members to write down the mission in a sentence on a piece of paper. If there are 12 people in the room, I’ll get as many as six different versions of the mission statement. Some of them are similar, but definitely not alike. Others are vastly different.

EXAMPLE: I worked with a small arts organization that brought arts into urban schools and juvenile detention centers. Here are some of the less-than-holistic mission statements I received:

  • We bring art supplies to schools.
  • We create young artists whose works may become collectible.
  • We build self-esteem among at-risk youth.
  • We offer art courses in juvenile detention centers.
  • We work with school teachers to teach children art.

Why does this happen?

I believe it’s because we get bogged down with process, losing sight of the reason we exist.

We talk and write about what we do more than why we do it.

Define your purpose with clarity.

How would your E.D. answer this question:

“What would happen if our nonprofit ceased to exist?”

  • How would your board members answer that question?
  • How would your donors answer that question?
  • How would you answer that question?

Would you be surprised to learn that all too often when I ask that question of staff and volunteers they become completely tongue-tied?

If those closest to you can’t easily articulate why your survival is vitally important, why would anyone else want to jump on board your ship?!

Move beyond defining yourself by what you’re not.

It’s not uncommon for folks to tell me they’re involved with a “worthwhile nonprofit” that helps (whatever) – as if the mere fact of being “nonprofit” should be enough to persuade me to jump on board. It’s not.

It is therefore essential you move beyond defining yourself by what you’re not (nonprofit) and begin to define yourself by what you are (social benefit).

What is the benefit you provide — to people, the community, the nation or the world — and how would folks miss you if you were gone?

Tie your mission, values and vision together into a “Case for Support.”

It’s essential you do the work of clarifying your case for support (raison d’être) so that mission/vision/values are (1) seamlessly integrated and (2) persuasively articulated. Your “case” is the reason someone should support you. It’s the sum of a lot of parts, with the whole being the greater good.

There are two schools of thought as to what constitutes a case statement: external vs. internal.

  1. Some consider it to be a donor-facing document.
  2. Others adhere to the internal working document theory.  

I fall in the former camp when it comes to creating a campaign-specific appeal (little “c”); the latter camp when it comes to expressing the depth and breadth of your mission, vision and values (Big “C”). Today I’m talking about “Big “C.”

Involve all key stakeholders in iterating your existential “greater good” triad.

Get everyone on the same page. The goal is to get input from folks with different perspectives who are essential to moving your organization forward.


Thoughtfully determine the stakeholders you want to engage in the process before you begin to draft your document. You may wish to involve staff in different departments; board and/or key board committees; clients, and/or personnel in different geographical regions.

The “Case for Support” should be a living, breathing, working document.

Your Case Statement is an internal document that undergirds everything you do – what, how and why. Body, heart and soul.

It’s your talk and your walk. It forms the basis for how you treat people as well as what you say to them. Ideally, it becomes the underpinning for your own unique culture of philanthropy. And you know what they say about culture, right? It eats strategy for breakfast! More to the point is this quote:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast but culture gets its appetite from purpose.” — John O’Brien, author, The Power of Purpose

Just as your meaning and purpose as an individual evolves over time, so does your organizational case statement evolve. A great example of a nonprofit that evolved their mission, values and vision over time is the March of Dimes. It began seeking a cure for polio (all but eradicated); today it leads the fight for the health of all moms and babies. 


Select one writer, not a committee. You’ll want to work through a process of soliciting feedback through individual interviews and group meetings, but you’ll want one person to consolidate this information. “Cut and paste” is for kindergarten, not for business.

Your Case Statement is an aspirational blueprint.

It’s not a strategic plan, but a hopeful promise to all your constituents. It doesn’t include goals, measurable objectives, strategies, tactics, budgets and deadlines. It’s a summary of history, current mission, values and vision from the perspective of different stakeholders, all fused together as your hopes for today and tomorrow. It’s how you aspire to serve the greater good.

Aspiration shouldn’t take a year to develop. In fact, you could probably ask half a dozen key leaders to write your case statement from the top of their heads and they’d be able to complete it in a day or two. The problem here is they’d likely all be somewhat different. Which is why it’s important to run through a communal process to iron out differences and come to a meeting of the minds. Your strength lies in consensus around what everyone agrees is your raison d’être.

Your Case Statement’s ultimate goal.

It’s to answer a donor’s question:  “Why should I support you, why you instead of another charity, and why now?” You can likely get to this point within one to three months, depending on the complexity of your mission and organizational structure.


  • Develop a plan and timeline; calendar fact-finding interviews and meetings in month one.
    • Brainstorm: Hold a series of meetings and do some brainstorming. Don’t evaluate ideas at first; just capture them on an easel or white board that serves as a group memory. Consider engaging a facilitator to help you stay focused and narrow your findings to key elements.
    • Memorialize the group memory: Write up your notes and distribute to participants.
    • Take your write-ups to a subsequent meeting. Try to group ideas that are similar. Ask the group if they’d like any of the groupings clarified or fleshed out before the group proceeds to decision-making. Choose a process (or combination of processes) for prioritizing the key ideas that have emerged.
  • Write and review draft in month two.
    • Write up all interview and meeting notes as a draft.  Distribute to designated stakeholders (e.g., one representative from each of different groups that met) for review and feedback to the principle writer.
    • Consolidate the key takeaways into a single written document.
  • Finalize and approve statement in month three.
    • Review and approve: Make sure it’s something that resonates with folks, and something everyone can live with and is proud of. You might review again with designated stakeholders and/or the board executive committee.
    • Board approval. After the statement has been approved and recommended to the board, there should be a vote of the full board.

When everyone can say, unequivocally, “Yes! This is the reason for our existence, and this is the reason we must do everything in our power to assure our continued existence,” then you’ve got a true Case Statement that reflects your mission, values and vision.

In Part 2 and Part 3 of this three-part series we’ll delve more deeply into each of the elements of this existential triad.

Nonprofit Sustainability

Author information

Claire Axelrad

Claire Axelrad

Principal at Clairification

Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, is Principal of the social benefit consulting firm, Clairification. Named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by AFP, Claire teaches the CFRE course that certifies professional fundraisers, is a presenter for 4GOOD Nonprofit Webinars, a regular contributor on nonprofit social media to Maximize Social Business and was named “Best Fundraising Blog of 2013” by FundRaising Success Magazine.

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