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  • Writer's pictureAnne-Marie Grey

Are you a mission-driven or purpose-driven organization, and does it really matter?

Working within the nonprofit sector, managers and boards often incorrectly assume that because of their remit of “doing good”, their employees and supporters are committed and engaged. After all, their mission and purpose is obvious isn’t it. Doesn’t Feeding America’s name say it all? Working with nonprofit leaders and boards, I been in many a word smithing retreat where participants will agonize over the right combinations of words to capture what they are about often without the participation of t the very people they need to engage – staff, donors and those with lived experience for whom their programs and services are intended.


Hours can be spent on revising the words of the mission statement with little thought on how an organization’s leadership will ensure alignment with the stakeholders that we are ultimately trying to engage in our work. Often, we assume that because we have a mission, our purpose is clear to everyone if they would just take the time to read our mission statements. And we get hot under the collar when we hear the corporations “appropriating’ non-profit terms like mission-driven and purpose-driven into their marketing and communications activities. Sound familiar?

In the nonprofit sector, the terms "mission-driven" and "purpose-driven" are often used interchangeably, but there can be some nuances in their meaning. Here's how these terms are commonly understood in the context of nonprofit organizations:

Mission-Driven Nonprofit: A mission-driven nonprofit organization strongly emphasizes its specific mission statement. The mission defines the organization's purpose, outlines its goals, and guides its activities. Mission is the organization's specific goals and objectives. It is what the organization does to achieve its purpose.


It serves as a clear and concise statement of what the organization aims to achieve and the problem it seeks to address. The mission statement typically focuses on the organization's primary beneficiaries and the specific outcomes or impact it seeks to create for them. Mission-driven nonprofits prioritize accomplishing their stated mission and align their resources, programs, and initiatives to fulfill that mission.


Purpose-Driven Nonprofit: A purpose-driven nonprofit organization takes a broader and more holistic approach to its work. It emphasizes the underlying purpose or reason for its existence beyond just accomplishing a specific mission. Purpose is the organization's underlying belief about why it exists and why it does what it does. It is the organization's reason for being, beyond making money.


The purpose reflects the organization's fundamental values, beliefs, and the overall impact it seeks to have on society or the world. While the mission statement is typically more specific and tangible, the purpose statement is more abstract and encompassing, guiding the organization's overall direction and decisions. Purpose-driven nonprofits often strive to address systemic issues or contribute to social change beyond the direct outcomes of their specific mission.

  • Mission is the organization's specific goals and objectives. It is what the organization does to achieve its purpose.

  • Purpose is the organization's underlying belief about why it exists and why it does what it does. It is the organization's reason for being.

In other words, purpose is the "why" of an organization, while mission is the "what".

While mission-driven and purpose-driven organizations focus on a higher purpose, there are slight differences in how they approach and define their core guiding principles.

Here's an overview of the distinctions between mission-driven and purpose-driven organizations:


Mission-Driven Organization:

  1. Focus: A mission-driven organization primarily emphasizes achieving its specific mission or objective. The mission defines the organization's reason for existence and its core goal.

  2. Specificity: The mission is often more specific and tangible, outlining what the organization aims to accomplish clearly and measurably.

  3. External Orientation: Mission-driven organizations tend to be externally focused, concentrating on the impact they want to create in the world or the problems they seek to address.

  4. Actions and Activities: The organization's actions and activities align with fulfilling the defined mission. Strategies, programs, and initiatives are designed to directly contribute to the achievement of the mission.

  5. Stakeholder Engagement: Mission-driven organizations typically engage stakeholders, such as beneficiaries, clients, or communities, directly affected by the mission. They prioritize understanding and meeting the needs of these stakeholders.

  6. Accountability: The organization's success is often measured by how well it accomplishes its mission. Key performance indicators and metrics are tied to specific mission-related outcomes.

Purpose-Driven Organization:

  1. Broad Focus: A purpose-driven organization takes a broader and more encompassing approach. It emphasizes the underlying purpose or reason for its existence beyond just accomplishing a specific mission.

  2. Universality: The purpose is often more abstract and overarching, reflecting the organization's fundamental values, beliefs, and the impact it seeks to have on society or the world.

  3. Internal Orientation: Purpose-driven organizations strongly emphasize internal alignment and connecting individual and collective actions with the organization's purpose. They focus on inspiring and motivating individuals to contribute to a more significant cause.

  4. Values-Based Decision Making: Purpose-driven organizations often make decisions based on their core values and the long-term impact they want to have on stakeholders and society.

  5. Cultural Integration: Purpose-driven organizations strive to embed their purpose in the organizational culture and use it as a guiding principle in decision-making, relationships, and overall operations.

  6. Stakeholder Engagement: While purpose-driven organizations consider stakeholders, their engagement may extend beyond immediate beneficiaries to include employees, partners, and other stakeholders who play a role in fulfilling the purpose.

  7. Holistic Impact: Purpose-driven organizations aim for holistic impact, addressing multiple dimensions of well-being and social good rather than solely focusing on specific outcomes related to their mission.

A mission-driven organization primarily focuses on achieving a specific mission. In contrast, a purpose-driven organization takes a more holistic and values-driven approach, aligning actions with an overarching purpose beyond any particular mission. Both approaches can be valuable, and organizations may embody elements of both in their work.


Does it matter whether an organization is purpose-driven or mission-driven?

The answer is yes, it does matter. Purpose-driven organizations are more likely to be successful in the long run, because they have a clear sense of direction and purpose. They are also more likely to attract and retain engaged employees, who are passionate about the organization's work. Consumers and customers are increasingly seeking to do business with companies seeking to do more than make money and Millennial and Gen Z employees expect their employers to commit to using their businesses to make a positive impact on the world with new standards for corporate responsibility, sustainability and ethical practices.


According to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a 2022 survey of 1,000 nonprofit employees found that 44% of them are considering leaving the sector within the next two years. And 25% of those surveyed cited dissatisfaction and no longer feel passionate about their organization's mission or direction. Nonprofit leaders cannot assume that their cause and mission statements provide employees and supporters with a sense of purpose. We cannot confuse mission with purpose.


Ultimately, the best type of organization is one that is both purpose-driven and mission-driven. This type of organization has a clear sense of purpose, but it also has specific goals and objectives that it is committed to achieving.


Many nonprofit organizations embody elements of both mission-driven and purpose-driven approaches. The mission provides a clear focus and tangible goals, while the purpose provides a broader sense of meaning, values, and long-term impact. Both mission-driven and purpose-driven nonprofits are important and contribute to the social good, and the choice of terminology may vary depending on the organization's specific context and messaging.


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