How we created Couchsurfing’s mission and vision statements

Published on 6/1/2010

In 2003 I was at my mother’s office desk filling in the forms to incorporate CouchSurfing. One of the questions on the forms was “What is your mission?” I’d been thinking about Couchsurfing for years so I had an intuitive sense of what it could do for the world, I just couldn’t quite articulate what the CS mission should be. Just like you might write down on a napkin, I wrote:

“CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding.”

The mission statement came from the heart, but it wasn’t all that useful. It captured the feeling of what we were trying to create, but it didn’t help us know what exactly we should be spending our time on.

For a few years Couchsurfing was run out of collectives (live/work spaces for our earlier volunteers), and the first one was in Montreal. About six months into the collective we had a huge computer crash that devastated our systems to the point we felt we might not recover. In true CouchSurfing spirit the members rallied round to make sure we did. Their messages of support and demands of “No! You can’t stop the site!” really energized all the volunteers and helped us get back on our feet, and it proved the perfect opportunity to reassess what our mission should be. We asked the volunteers to spend a few hours thinking about the mission statement and we came up with version 2.0 — “Creating a better world one couch at a time.”

We liked it a lot, it’s on our website even now, but it still didn’t really help guide us enough. It was a slogan that was useful in attracting people, but it didn’t help us in knowing what to do and what not to do. People had their own ideas of what should be a priority and what shouldn’t, and it could be argued that almost everything would fit into the mission in some way. This meant that people were taking lots of little steps in lots of different directions. What we wanted was to take big, coordinated steps towards helping Couchsurfing achieve something greater.

The founders started researching what a mission statement was exactly. We read a lot of books and online texts on how to create one. What we found was that there were really two different concepts: a vision statement and a mission statement. It seemed that more sophisticated organizations had both. The vision statement should be what we wanted the world to look like and the mission statement was how we were going to get there. We started distinguishing between the two and that helped us move towards finding our compass.

We decided that what we really needed was input from our members, so we examined the mission statements on their profiles and what was being said in the testimonials. From that we created word clouds.

We could see that the word clouds contained lots of great concepts, but which one was the most important? After studying them for a long time we realized that the concepts were logically related, and that they made a causal chain where one event in the chain causes the next. CouchSurfing’s looked like this:

Explore → connect → appreciate diversity

We were so excited, because we realized it was Couchsurfing that enabled this chain to happen.

During the Thai collective we wrote the first draft of the vision and mission statements as you see them on the site now. We took them to twenty or so people of varying backgrounds and got back lots of changes and recommendations. We repeated this until we got back fewer and fewer changes. Then, we took them to about a thousand members and non-members, until we got to where 90% of people agreed with both statements. We were really surprised that the number was that high and knew this meant that the statements were probably as good as we could possibly get them.

We shared them with the community on the website in 2009 and since then they have helped us determine what we should be doing and what we shouldn’t. Knowing our long-term vision has helped a lot – it has helped us agree upon where we’re going and it has provided a framework for us to work within. We always knew we wanted to create a better world. Now we knew exactly how Couchsurfing could contribute.

So how do the vision and mission statements relate to what we do every day?

Well, our vision statement is the goal we’re aiming for. It’s how we want the world to look — an understanding world where people respect and appreciate each other’s differences. Our mission is what we’re doing as an organization to get to the vision. We have a list of different goals that help us move towards that mission. We also have a list of projects that help us move towards each one of these goals. And, we have a list of tasks associated with those projects. These tasks are what we do every day. Our mission statement is something that we can change if we ever discover a better way to accomplish our goals. The vision (which is the statement of those goals) should never change.

If you haven’t already, I hope you take the time to read the Couchsurfing vision and mission statements. I’d love to hear what you think about them.