Helping youth define their mission

Yesterday I began an extended program to help New Yorkers for Children‘s Youth Advisory Board define their organization. This is a very exciting time and I feel so lucky to play a part in this process. The YAB has been around for about four years now, but this year really marked a turning point for the group. NYFC’s web site advertises the YAB as a group of high school and college students in foster care who gather once a month for dinner to socialize and help plan events and programs that benefit younger children in care, and also to advise NYFC on the concerns of older students in care. Currently, most (if not all) are in college and are in their early twenties. YAB has largely played a supporting role in events planned by NYFC, but recently members have been expressing an increased desire to plan and carry out their own projects. To help in these efforts, they decided to hold elections for four positions (President, VP, Treasurer, and Secretary), and also to define their own mission statement.

The current version of their mission statement is too broad, so yesterday we engaged in a series of discussions and exercises designed to help them refine it. We began with a meditation on the word community, which they used to describe themselves in their mission statement. We talked about how a community was a group of people that had something in common: things like a geographic location (actual or symbolic, as in diasporic communities), an institutional affiliation (such as a student and alumni network), or even ideas and ideals (e.g., the philanthropic community). Someone added that people in communities also supported each other and looked out for one another’s best interests. What united the members of YAB a community was everyone’s experience of foster care.

To provoke them a bit, I presented them with the argument that YAB was more than just a community, that it was an organization. We talked about the work of community organizers, and through that they were able to define an organization as a group of people who rally behind a cause and work toward goals.

Once that observation had been made, we were able to begin digging into concepts that are fundamental to personal and organizational orientation: values, purpose, vision, mission, and functions. Everyone got a handy graphic tool to help define these concepts. Behold “Mission Man”:

Image

Instead of giving out definitions of each term, we came up with a set of questions that we could ask ourselves to help define each one for ourselves. These questions can be phrased in the first person singular (for an individual reflection on one’s calling) or in the first person plural to define the mission of an organization.

Values are what’s in our heart: What are my deepest beliefs? What do I hold most dear in life? Who are the people or causes I care about?

Purpose is what’s at our core: What makes me get up each morning? Why was I put on this earth? What am I supposed to do with my life?

Vision is what you hope or see for yourself or the world in the future: Where do I see myself in several years? What does my ideal society look like?

Mission is the work you do that is line with your values and purpose, and which will carry you closer to your vision: What are some of the unmet needs in this world that I can help address?

Functions are the specific ways that you carry out your mission: What are the various activities that I engage in to carry out my mission?

To give “Mission Man” a spin, we started with a hypothetical individual who valued Christianity, believed in helping the needy, and loved working with children and youth. He felt his purpose was to spread the good word and guide those who were lost. What are some possible missions for such an individual? The first two answers that came up were “volunteer at a soup kitchen” and “Feed the Children.” That presented a great opportunity to demonstrate how one’s mission ideally hews as closely as possible to one’s values and purpose. In this case, the individual might be more fulfilled working at Feed the Children than at a soup kitchen because it would allow him to serve young people. Participants offered a range of other answers such as pastor, guidance counselor, or high school teacher (“Maybe Catholic school?”), so we talked about how he could define his mission based on his natural talents and training (“He would need a master’s from divinity school to be a pastor.”)

I then had everyone fill out part of “Mission Man” for themselves so that we could draw out some common concerns in the group. They each had to define their personal values, purpose, and vision. Common words and phrases that popped up under values and purpose: helping, children, youth, education, foster care, and “path to adulthood.” Many of them envisioned a world where young adults didn’t have to struggle so much to support themselves, and where cycles of poverty and hardship could be broken more easily.

After “Mission Man,” we shifted gears to look at some mission statements from other organizations whose missions seemed to be in line with the concerns of YAB. We looked at some hypothetical projects and decided whether or not they would be in line with each organization’s mission. Then we talked about what made certain mission statements effective (e.g., clarity and brevity) and also deduced the various functions of a mission statement (to attract potential donors, volunteers, and beneficiaries of services; to keep members of an organization on track; and, in relation to the latter, to define the scope of the organization’s reach).  We will take all this knowledge and put it to use in the next meeting to rewrite YAB’s mission statement and begin work on a group constitution.

I’ve been extremely fortunate so far with the young people I’ve been asked to work with, and the members of YAB are no exception. The group is infectiously gregarious, but they were all capable of focusing on the tasks at hand despite having spent a long day in college classes. I was especially struck by their incisive questions and their passion for service, whether it be in their professional careers or in their volunteer work. Good luck and much success to YAB!

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