Ideally, an association's mission and vision should be in alignment. Often in reality they are not.

Over time as leadership changes hands and founding members become less involved, an association may experience mission drift or vision creep, and the two begin to diverge. This in itself is not a bad thing, as long as those setting strategy for the organization are aware of the changes taking place and make a conscious choice to let themselves be guided by the evolving mission or vision.

Problems occur when the leadership is unaware or confused about whether they are setting direction based on mission or vision. Confusion usually begins at the strategic-planning or agenda-setting stage. The terms "mission" and "vision" may be misunderstood, ill defined or even inverted.

Often a facilitator will ask the group to write or rewrite the organization's mission and vision, which helps to unify the group for purposes of discussion. But this can lead to mission drift or vision creep if the members of the group are not clear on whether they are articulating the organization's current mission and vision or composing an aspirational mission or vision to move the association in a different direction.

To avoid further muddying the waters, it should be said that an organization's mission is not the same as a military mission, and its vision is not a utopian wish list.

The simplest way to think about them is that mission is the organization's reason for being, its purpose and whom it was created to serve; and vision is an image at a given point in the future of what the organization has accomplished or fulfilled — sort of what the organization wants to be when it grows up.

The mission is the boat, if you will, and the vision its destination. The plan should set the course that gets the boat to its destination.

Missions rarely change, but visions often do. Visions are more susceptible to changes in external forces, such as the economy, competitors and markets, than are missions. Moreover, a vision can be accomplished, but a mission either survives or ends.

It is this essential difference between enduring missions and evolving visions that leads to misalignment. A couple of cases may help.

    Mission drift

    Here we have a situation where the leadership decides for strategic reasons to make a concerted effort to extend its reach within a particular market segment. But with limited resources, it can only do so at the expense of underserving other parts of its membership, which eventually leads to feelings of ill will and a loss of members.

    This is what I call "mission drift." The organization has become unmoored from its mission in the pursuit of a vision that, in good faith, was framed to advance its mission but has come to overshadow it.

    Vision creep

    Here we have a situation where the organization depends almost entirely on member contributions to cover its operating expenses. In recent years, the amount of member contributions has been steadily declining, as has the percentage of members who contribute.

    The leadership, however, regards member support as a core value of the organization and has been reluctant to pursue other funding strategies. As a result, the organization is now in dire financial straits.

    This what I call “vision creep.” The leadership's commitment to the organization's mission is encroaching on its ability to create a sustainable vision. The world has changed, but rather than change with it, the leadership is pursuing a strategy of defending its mission, whereas it should be focused on evolving its vision. The boat is still the same, but if it does not change course it will sink.

When strategies are aligned, the organization's mission informs its vision, and its vision furthers the mission. When they are out of sync, they can work against each other, creating a great deal of friction and wasted effort throughout the organization.

Change is necessary and inevitable. The key to effective strategy is knowing what you are changing and why.