Several year’s ago I was facilitating a meeting when the president of the organization said… “We are not who we are.” That odd statement codified what everyone was feeling in the room—lost. Somewhere along the organization’s journey it got detoured and ended up in a place it never intended to go, serving the community not as effectively as it could, and focused on daily issues that seemed deeply disconnected from its mission.

This is not an uncommon story. Nonprofit organizations face many twists and turns in pursuit of mission. Sometimes a much sought after grant goes from becoming a necessary resource to the organization’s central focus, or a succession of bad hires leads the organization away from the cause. Choices were made where the mission was never really adhered to or considered. Worse yet, the mission was never really relevant or meaningful to those leading the organization and led to arbitrary and unfocused decision making.

Organizations are at risk when mission is only a statement; a device used as a reference point, or a special decoder that offers a hidden answer. Above all, mission is a feeling. An organization’s leadership may capture it in a carefully worded statement, but before that happens a sense of being emerges from a milieu of diverse passions. Mission is about a group of people imagining the change they can create and exploring these possibilities together. Through their collective action, they discover something in common within one another, a shared sense of purpose. This feeling is so great that it deserves to be written down.

Beyond an organization’s capacity to manage day-to-day challenges or align action to mission, is the greater capability to keep a feeling or sense of mission alive. To do so, leadership must regularly reconnect to four domains:

People – Knowing and understanding whom we wish to actively affect and why; this needs to be viewed through an inclusive lens, considering all potential stakeholders.

Passion – Getting to the heart of what collectively moves board, staff, and volunteers to action; answering why we as a group are motivated to act together.

Promise – Defining the specific meaningful value we promise to create and deliver; articulating the impact we will strive to bring into the world.

Principles – Deciding on the best way to act that upholds what we believe in; allowing the organization to live in a principled way.

Together, these four domains form a prism that helps leadership reflect on how the mission is advancing and maturing. If there is one capability board and staff should share is the ability to look at each domain on a daily basis through every interaction and, on special occasions, bring these domains together and discuss what is learned.

Before writing or re-writing a mission statement, leadership must feel the mission, intuitively understanding why it has emerged, why it is meaningful, and why they wish to be a part of it.