Discovering the Magic of Mission Statements

Creating the perfect mission statement for history based nonprofits

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on the monthly board meeting for a local nonprofit. They hoped to gain insight from members of other organizations in an attempt to cement community support for one of their goals. The group wanted to open a community center, a youth support venue, or a student led entrepreneurial business. Nearly every individual at the table was someone I recognized- teachers, lawyers, bankers, higher education professionals, etc- the “ideal candidates” sought after to fill board seats for most nonprofits. I was impressed at the vigor and enthusiasm shown as each outlined his or her favored plan, going into great detail as to what they could accomplish, which buildings they should consider for rental or purchase, and even how they would organize the furniture once it had been acquired. An unexplainable feeling of dread was creeping over me as I sat patiently, before whispering to the person on my right, “what is their mission statement?”

The knot in my stomach was almost too much to bear upon hearing her coy response…after four years of meetings, they were looking at massive plans with intense donor buy-in and didn’t have a mission statement!

What’s your mission?

Mission statements are amazing (and necessary) tools in the nonprofit world. They have the power to differentiate the cutting edge from the left behind and the exciting from the pretentious. Every nonprofit has- or should have- a mission statement (feel free to pause a second and find a copy of yours if you’re panicking now). Simply put, the mission statement of a nonprofit is the one to three sentence explanation of what you do and why you are here (Once again, don’t panic if yours is more than three sentences…we’ll get to that later).

Creating a better mission statement for history based nonprofits
Think of your mission statement, on the organizational level, as a mix between that one-liner you give a blind date when they ask what you do for a living and your epitaph. You want to be vague enough to spare the boring details of every meeting you go to, yet at the same time make it obvious why you’re important enough to keep your job.

Why’s this important?

Your mission statement is the single most important piece of information your nonprofit has at its disposal. Let’s face it- regardless of our outward impressions, nonprofits are often large and complicated businesses and must be run as such. As board members change, new staff is hired, and programming is introduced or adapted, your mission statement declares “all of this is ok, because it’s why we are here!” This is your statement of purpose and the one line that encompasses everything you need to give potential donors excitement over their impending gifts, or a rallying cry for your staff and board to spread your message. An easy yardstick to measure your mission’s effectiveness is to compare your nonprofit to the manufacturing industry. Ask yourself this question: “Auto manufacturers may build cars, but my organization (fill in your mission here).” It may need some slight tweaking, but if you can answer that comparative question easily and with some excitement by reading your mission statement, you’re in great shape! If you can’t, we’ll explore how to correct that below.

What’s in a mission statement?

By definition, your mission statement should tell the “what” and “why” of your organization. That said, there there are a few simple rules to keep in mind while writing an effective one:

  • Make it short and sweet
  • Tell a catching story
  • Keep it on point, but allow for organizational growth

Here is the wrong way to write a mission statement:

Here’s the real mission statement of a county historical society we have worked with (before they looked at revisions):

The purpose of the Society shall be to preserve and interpret the history of ***** County for future generations. The means to accomplish this goal shall include but not be limited to

  1. collecting and preserving materials deemed historically relevant, most particularly materials which relate to the history of ***** County; and
  2. making accessible and disseminating to the public its historical resources by such methods as become feasible; and
  3. owning, restoring and preserving real property for which admission may be charged; and
  4. promoting the county’s heritage through such means as outreach programs and in cooperation with other like-minded entities.

While this Historical Society has outlined their purpose in painfully exquisite detail (decades ago in their defense), there is little chance their staff and board can remember it, no less repeat it, at a fundraiser or even a board meeting. They’ve effectively merged a mission statement and vision statement (also important) into one list of goals they hope to someday possibly accomplish.

Mission statements are the hook- the “what” and “why” of an organization and should be something easy to memorize. Vision statements are the “how” of your organization and can be longer, but must be equally well worded. Don’t fall into the trap of letting your programming drive your mission- this statement of purpose should be the driver of your programs- not the other way around.

Let’s look at the right way:

The Minnesota Historical Society rewrote their mission statement in 2012, boiling down a decades old version similar to the one I made example of into the following statement:

Using the Power of History to Transform Lives

Every organization has different needs for their mission, but notice the simplicity in the one written by MHS. It follows all the rules while allowing the organization to energetically operate and grow. MHS’s mission also provides a call to action for their board and volunteers and a hook to encourage buy-in among their donor base.

Mission vs Vision

Once you’ve finished examining your mission statement, don’t throw away the work of your predecessors! With every good mission statement, is a vision statement explaining how your group plans to carry that mission out. We’ll discuss vision statements in more detail in a future post. The difference between the two that must be remembered is simple. Visions change as resources, staff, and boards do. Your mission, however, should dictate everything you do and once agreed upon, be the premise for your existence. Make it one to last!