Is Purpose the Same as Vision?

Jay Geneske Partner

As purpose-driven companies hit the mainstream and beyond, I’ve seen an uptick in corporations, nonprofits, and foundations questioning whether they are covering the right bases, like:

Aren’t vision and purpose the same?
Are mission statements only for nonprofits?
Why isn’t our purpose statement getting traction?

Look no further than a Google search to find the widespread confusion among purpose-driven organizations, and for a good reason. Having worked for corporate, nonprofit, and philanthropic organizations, I’ve seen vision, mission, and purpose used interchangeably, differently, or not at all. I’ve encountered businesses who have bold purpose statements, but lack a vision, not to mention buy-in from employees. But I’ve also encountered nonprofits who have bold mission statements, but lack a sense of purpose.

Here’s my perspective on the key differences between vision, mission, and purpose, and whether you need all three.

Vision is how the world looks when you’ve achieved your mission as an organization. It’s a long-term destination, an end state, but it still needs to be clear, ambitious, timely and timeless, and radically optimistic.

Contrary to common practice, your vision is not the future you see for your business. Becoming the leader in your industry by 2025 is a great business goal, but it’s not your vision. It’s too narrow and inward-looking, and won’t allow your organization to adjust as the market and world changes. Instead, your vision is the lasting impact you plan to create for your community and the world. An example might be “a world where all children can thrive” or “ the world is powered solely by clean energy.”

You might think of your vision as your North Star: close enough so that your stakeholders can see and believe in it, but far enough away that the path to reach it can change, because it certainly will. Your business likely isn’t the only one marching toward your vision, but you do have a unique role to play in reaching it, and that’s what gives you a value proposition. This is where mission comes in.

Mission is what you uniquely do and for whom. It’s what clearly guides the decisions and priorities needed to reach your vision. Some organizations call this their promise. An example might be “build a better food system” or “create a more informed public.”

In my experience, some organizations–particularly nonprofits–think of their mission as their reason for being. Other organizations–particularly corporations–often articulate their reason for being as their purpose.

But there’s an important distinction.

Purpose is why you do what you do. I prefer this frame over “why you exist” because it pushes an organization to focus on action, rather than linger in the inspirational. From an organizational lens, purpose works best when it articulates your “why” as an organization, which in turn helps your employees and stakeholders connect their personal purpose to yours.

So, does your organization need a vision, purpose, and a mission?

While you need to have answers for all three, don’t get caught up in rigid frameworks. What’s most important is that you’ve first articulated and are aligned on the where, why, and what. Although the best way to illustrate purpose will vary company by company, a typical practice is to converge your vision, mission, and purpose into a simple and motivating Purpose Statement. From there, your core values, behaviors, strategies, etc. fall into place. What best practices have you seen? I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Articulating your purpose is just the start. Activating it is where the rubber hits the road and also where the magic happens. In order for your purpose to truly make an impact, it must must live beyond a poster in your company cafeteria or the About Us page on your website. Purpose makes it clear what you believe. It’s your clarion call, your rallying cry. It’s the compass that guides your products, programs and services, your culture and values, your communications and full brand experience.

Some questions to spark a conversation on purpose:

How will the world look in 100 years when we achieve our mission?
What needs to be changed in the world and why?
What impact will we have on people’s lives?

Why do we do what we do?
Why does anyone care about what we do?
Why do we come to work every day?

What type of organization are we?
What’s the broadest way to describe what we uniquely do?
For whom do we do this work?