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What should a mission statement say?

"If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't matter which way you go."
— Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

by Ron Meshanko of Ecumenical Resource Consultants in Washington, DC

I give board trainings all over the country and begin each session with a quiz, the first question being, write your agency mission statement. 99% of the time, not one person — sometimes including even the executive director — can write down in clear, succinct language the mission statement of the agency.

How can these people lead the organization? How can they lobby on its behalf? How can a person who can't communicate the mission of the agency ask for a gift?

A Mission Statement should be a one-sentence, clear, concise statement that says who the agency is (the name, that it is a nonprofit, and what type of agency it is), what it does, for whom and where. Period.

Some will say that the vision and future of the agency has to be indicated. That would be great. But let's get to the basics first. That is the bottom-line. Call it a PR statement if you will, but have a simple, easy to remember and repeat statement that board members, staff and volunteers can effectively use to focus their efforts and to speak up on behalf of the organization.

An example: "United Community Center is a 501(c)(3) human service agency providing emergency assistance, daycare, social services and recreational activities for low-income children and families at risk in inner city Atlanta, Georgia".


From The Support Center, San Francisco, California

In just a few sentences a mission statement needs to communicate the essence of your organization to your stakeholders and to the public. For example:

At the Developmental Studies Center we develop, evaluate, and disseminate programs that foster children's ethical, social, and intellectual development. While nurturing children's capacity to think skillfully and critically, we also strive to deepen children's commitment to prosocial values such as kindness, helpfulness, personal responsibility, and respect for others — qualities we believe are essential to leading humane and productive lives in a democratic society.

Often, however, organizations want to say more about who they are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it. Therefore, another example of a mission statement format is illustrated by the mission statement developed by the Forest Service. After a brief statement, the Forest Service uses three pages to elaborate its mission, vision, and guiding principles. Excerpts from the expanded statement include:

"The phrase, 'caring for the land and serving the people,' captures the Forest Service mission. As set forth in law, the mission is to achieve quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management concept to meet the diverse needs of people."

Advocacy for a conservation ethic: "Vision: We are recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in caring for the land...."

Guiding Principles: "To realize our mission and vision, we follow 13 guiding principles...."

Neither the single paragraph nor the multi-page approach is necessarily the "right" one for your organization. What is important about your mission statement is that one guiding set of ideas is articulated, understood and supported by the organization's stakeholders, board, staff, volunteers, donors, clients, and collaborators.

The Need for a Mission Statement

In Profiles of Excellence, the Independent Sector lists a clear, agreed upon mission statement first among the four primary characteristics of successful nonprofit organizations.

The primary importance of the mission statement means that failure to clearly state and communicate your organization's mission can have harmful consequences, including: organization members can waste time "barking up the wrong tree"; the organization may not think broadly enough about different possibilities if its mission statement is unclear or overly narrow; or the organization may not realize when it is time to go out of business

What Should Be in a Mission Statement?

The following concepts are critical in defining "who" your organization is:

The Purpose Statement

The purpose statement clearly states what your organization seeks to accomplish: Why does your organization exist? What is the ultimate result of your work?

Purpose statements usually include two phrases:

  • an infinitive that indicates a change in status, such as to increase, to decrease, to prevent, to eliminate, and
  • an identification of the problem or condition to be changed.

An example of a purpose statement is "to eliminate homelessness." In defining purpose, it is essential to focus on outcomes and results rather than methods: How is the world going to be different? What is going to change? Thus, the purpose of a mental health counseling agency would never be simply "to provide counseling services," for that is describing a method rather than a result. Rather, the purpose might be "to improve the quality of life" for its clients.

The Business Statement

This statement outlines the "business(es)" (i.e., activities or programs) your organization chooses in order to pursue its purpose. Specifically, you must answer, "What activity are we going to do to accomplish our purpose?" For example, there are many ways to work on the problem of homelessness:

  • to construct housing for homeless individuals
  • to educate the public and advocate for public policy changes
  • to provide job training to homeless individuals.

Each of these are different businesses, but they may be different means of achieving the same purpose.

Business statements often include the verb "to provide" or link a purpose statement with the words "by" or "through." For example: "To eliminate homelessness by providing job training to homeless individuals."

A cautionary note: If the word "and" is in your purpose or business statement, ask yourselves, "Are we really committed to both ideas connected by the word?" or "Have we simply not been able to accept that one idea is more important?"

Values

Values are beliefs which your organization's members hold in common and endeavor to put into practice. The values guide your organization's members in performing their work. Specifically, you should ask, "What are the basic beliefs that we share as an organization?"

Examples of values include: a commitment to excellent services, innovation, diversity, creativity, honesty, integrity, and so on. Values may include beliefs such as: "Eating vegetables is more economically efficient and ecologically responsible than eating beef." (Vegetarian Association)

Marvin Weisbord writes in his book Productive Workplaces that values come alive only when people are involved in doing important tasks. Ideally, an individual's personal values will align with the spoken and unspoken values of the organization. By developing a written statement of the values of the organization, group members have a chance to contribute to the articulation of these values, as well as to evaluate how well their personal values and motivation match those of the organization.

The example of a mission statement cited at the beginning of these notes includes all three elements of what should be included in a mission statement. To review:

At the Developmental Studies Center we develop, evaluate, and disseminate programs [business] that foster children's ethical, social, and intellectual development [purpose]. While nurturing children's capacity to think skillfully and critically, we also strive to deepen children's commitment to prosocial values such as kindness, helpfulness, personal responsibility, and respect for others - qualities we believe are essential to leading humane and productive lives in a democratic society [values].

Here is another example of a mission statement which includes all three elements:

The YMCA of San Francisco, based in Judeo-Christian heritage [values], seeks to enhance the lives of all people [purpose] through programs designed to develop spirit, mind and body [business].

In addition to the three elements discussed above, you may want to address the following questions in developing your organization's mission statement:

  • What is the problem or need your organization is trying to address?
  • What makes your organization unique?
  • Who are the beneficiaries of your work?

Clearly, the answers to the these questions could be included in the mission statement or added as elaboration of the mission statement.

How To Write a Mission Statement

There is no formula for finding the wording that best expresses the collective intention of your organization. It can be drafted by one person alone or after input gathered at leadership retreat. The most important issue is that there is consensus on the answers to the questions used in developing the mission statement.

One approach is to use time at a board retreat to discuss these questions and find out where the areas of consensus are and where there are differences. There is a "process" benefit to hashing over an organization's mission statement as well. In the course of discussion and debate, new members are introduced to nuances of an organization's mission and changes in the environment, and old members refresh their understanding of both. As a result, the group will have confidence that the mission statement which emerges (whether it is a new statement or a rededication to the old mission statement) is genuinely an articulation of commonly held ideas.

Groups are good at many things, but one of them is not writing. Have group discussions about big ideas and concepts and then let one or two individuals draft and redraft the wording before submitting a reworked version for the group to respond to. It is important to circulate the draft mission statement a few times to board, staff, and other stakeholders. Some consultants advise organizations to also seek an outside opinion from someone unfamiliar with the organization to see how easily the mission statement can be understood.

Mix with passion, humanity and an eye on the big picture, and keep refining the mission statement until you have a version that people can actively support.


An online search for the phrase "How to write a mission statement" will turn up quite a few additional resources.


The material from the Support Center is copyright © 1994-95 Support Center, San Francisco, CA, USA Distribution and reprinting permitted as long as this copyright notice is included. All Rights Reserved. (Note: The Support Center is now CompassPoint; this article is no longer available through that website. This text has been lightly edited for publication here.)