Everything you do emanates from the WHY and WHAT of your existence. Your mission! And both the why and what is important, because if folks don’t understand why you exist it’s difficult to inspire them with what you are doing.
I always ask a new client what would happen were they cease to exist. Here are answers you don’t want to offer up:
- Not much, really.
- It would be a little bit harder for people to get help.
- Fewer people would get help.
- It might take somewhat longer for people to get help.
- There would be less awareness of the problem.
- I don’t know.
The mission statement answers the question: What would happen if your organization disappeared. For example, a food bank’s mission might be simply: “To End Hunger in Our Community.” If they ceased to exist, people would be hungry. That would be a very bad thing. You need to have a compelling answer to this existential question. If you don’t have something that conveys some urgency to your raison d’être—it’s time to reconsider your mission statement!
The best mission statements are specific, yet succinct.
Don’t use vague terms like “to help people in Weloveus County live the best lives possible.” Which people? Live the best lives in what regard? Are you talking here about children? Seniors? Right to education? Access to healthcare? Exposure to the arts? Mission statements can’t be obtuse.
At the other end of the spectrum are mission statements that appear they were written by a legal team trying to capture every nuance with a different word (e.g., “We provide therapeutic, healing and supportive services to children, families, and seniors who are food insecure”). If you can’t convey why you exist in a simple, concise manner, people won’t clearly understand how to help you.
Write a sentence, not a term paper. You can always amplify your mission statement with descriptive narrative (e.g., on the “About” page on your website, your annual report, your 990, and so forth), but you want something really clear to put on your website home page, email signature and business card. Something easy to remember and, above all, easy to understand.
Missions may evolve over time.
Consider whether your mission (i.e., what you do) has significantly expanded or contracted since your founding (or since the last time you visited your mission statement). Perhaps you used to serve just preschoolers, and now you serve K – 6 as well. Or maybe you used to provide arts education in the public schools and juvenile detention centers, and now your focus has shifted exclusively to incarcerated youth.
For example, the March of Dimes was founded to “eradicate polio in the U.S.” When that battle was won, they could have gone out of business. Instead, they evolved their mission to fight for the health of all moms (healthy pregnancy) and babies (birth defects). Today they’re poised “to address some of the biggest health threats to moms and babies with innovations like folic acid, newborn screening, and surfactant therapy.”
If you do change your mission substantially your board should consider formally amending the mission statement to reflect those changes. In so doing, you’ll want to ensure your new mission remains consistent with your tax-exempt purposes. You’ll then need to amend your bylaws, and ensure the appropriate parties are notified of the change. Besides notifying the IRS when you file your Form 990, it’s a good idea to consult with an attorney who specializes in nonprofit business in your state. And, of course, you’ll want to modify your “about” statement on your website and notify donors of the change.
Great Mission Statement Examples
I’m about to give you an exercise to do with your nonprofit team to help you transform a bland or confusing mission statement into a bold and clear one. But first, let’s look at a mix of both local and international examples so you’ll know what to reach for.
charity: water is a nonprofit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
It’s succinct and specific. They really focus. They describe the kind of water (clean and safe) and their target population (people in developing nations).
Our mission is to end hunger in San Francisco and Marin.
They don’t describe their processes or myriad programs. The focus is on the end goal, and it’s localized so it seems manageable.
Our mission is to feed America’s hungry through a nationwide network of member food banks and engage our country in the fight to end hunger.
You can see how this mission shows how the umbrella organization fulfills its mission through a network of direct service agencies and also engages in advocacy.
Inspiring conservation of the ocean.
They don’t say they do this through a world-class museum and extensive research. Rather, they focus on their end goal. The why of their existence.
First Descents provides life-changing outdoor adventures for young adults (ages 18-39) impacted by cancer.
This is super clear. What kind of outdoor adventures? Life-changing. What type of young adults? Ages 18–39 impacted by cancer. Enough – and well – said.
For more guidance and ideas, check out this list of 50 nonprofit mission statements put together by Top Nonprofits from their listing of the Top 100 nonprofits. They recommend you stick with an 8th – 10th-grade reading level (I think you can go for 6th – 8th grade), use 5 – 14 words (20 words maximum), and stick to one sentence.
Get Ready to Brainstorm a Revised Mission Statement: Phase I
Reviewing your mission statement gives volunteers and staff the opportunity to connect/reconnect with the passion that originally drew them to you. It helps folks better appreciate the WHY and fully understand the WHAT. The process gets them involved. And, once the statement has been affirmed or revised, everyone feels inspired and equipped to communicate the statement to others. On your website. To their friends at a cocktail party. In a presentation to their book club. In a fundraising appeal or grant proposal. Everywhere you justify your existence and seek to inspire others to join you!
Here’s an exercise you can do sequentially, first as an individual; then as a team. The team approach is ideal because one of the problems with so-called mission statements is that too often they were written a zillion years ago — and no one has looked at them since. So were you to go around the table at your board meeting and ask folks to write down your mission on a piece of paper, you could easily end up with more than one different statement. Trust me – I’ve had this happen more times than I’d like to say!
Do this with a trained, objective facilitator. You don’t want to fall into the trap of no one wanting to be honest because they fear their opinion won’t matter. Nor do you want folks to defer to a strongly-opinionated leader, who may just be at odds with the larger group.
You want ONE, agreed-upon mission statement. Not multiple variations you use for different purposes or audiences. And not multiple variations depending on who you ask.
Even though I’ve called this a ‘brainstorming’ exercise, it’s helpful to do a little pre-planning. Or, at the least, give folks the opportunity to think on their own before they become victims of groupthink.
[NOTE: You can do this as a full staff, a department, a board of directors, or as a combination of staff and volunteers. You can also do this in sub-groups, with the plan being to collect the summary responses from each group and then bring them back to a designated ‘working group’ (perhaps with representation from each of the sub-groups) for further refinement.]
1. Answer these questions individually, on paper:
You can ask folks to complete a questionnaire prior to coming to a group meeting, or you can do this together at the meeting. If the latter allows no more than 10 – 15 minutes, letting people know they should keep their answers short and focused (i.e., words and phrases; not essays).
- If anything were possible, what would your organization look like? What would its impact be on the world?
- If you could describe what your organization does in a few keyword phrases, what would those be?
- What is/are your most pressing problem(s) as an organization right now?
- If you could wave a magic wand, what would you ask for in order to solve the problem(s) mentioned above?
- What legacy do you want your organization to have?
- Are there partners critical to helping you accomplish your goals? What does your ideal team, model, or outside partner(s) look like?
2. Once you’re done, ask folks to read out their responses to the group.
Do this question by question, while charting the answers up on a whiteboard or easel. (I prefer using an easel, as you can create separate pages for each question; then remove the pages and tape them up around the room).
Group similar responses together by circling, starring, numbering, or color coding with your marker. (e.g., if you are a food bank and six people answer question #1 with “No one will be hungry” and six answer with “No one in our community will be hungry,” you can see at a glance where there is a significant divide that may impact how you rewrite your mission statement – and all your subsequent messaging).
Group responses into categories that will serve as building blocks for your mission statement.
Don’t judge whether what emerges from the responses you’re collecting now seems like the perfect ultimate fit. Right now you’re just trying to get a handle on where you’re at today.
After you complete this grouping, you’ll move on to where you’d like to be moving forward. While not all categories may be appropriate or necessary for your organization, general categories include the following:
These are verbs (e.g., to end… to eradicate… to deliver… to build… to teach… to distribute).
These are generally nouns, sometimes modified by adjectives (e.g. clean water… low-income housing… literacy education… nutritious food… outdoor adventures…).
- TARGET BENEFICIARY
This might be people (specific population(s)), animals (specific), places (local or global), or a cause (e.g., social justice; the environment).
This is what your actions and services resolve. They are generally nouns, sometimes modified by adjectives (e.g., local hunger… ovarian cancer… climate change… human trafficking)
This pertains especially well to umbrella organizations, associations, and networks. It’s often an intangible (e.g., injustice… equality… freedom…conservation… spirituality… quality of life).
You don’t always want a deadline, but sometimes it makes sense. For example, when you want to get to zero carbon emissions by 2030. Or you’re committed to getting everyone who lost their shelter due to wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, or floods into affordable housing within the next three years.
Take a look at how you might group/diagram some typical types of responses using the five building blocks described above.
Take a Break.
If you’re doing this with a group, by now you’ll have a wealth of information collected. While group members have some refreshment, make phone calls, check emails, or whatever, have your facilitator help you get ready for the next phase of this exercise.
- Post your current mission statement on the wall. Not the one you’ve been processing, but the one you had when you walked into the exercise. You’re going to compare it with what you’ve been brainstorming and evaluating.
- Post your charted answers to the questions you posed to everyone up on the wall for folks to refer to. You’re going to go back and review these in Phase II.
- Post your lists of actions, services, target constituencies, problems, causes, and deadlines. You may find you have more than one of some of these, and none of the others. That’s okay.
Get Productive Conversations Going! Phase II.
During your discussions, continue taking notes on your whiteboard or flip chart so you create a group memory. This takes the focus off of any one individual’s comments. It also assures folks their comments were heard. Use these conversation facilitation suggestions.
Are your answers to questions 1, 2, and 5 mentioned in your current mission statement? Elsewhere on your website? If not, why?
This discussion highlights the core importance of your mission and helps to uncover gaps that may exist. It also helps you find ancillary programs or services that may not belong in your mission statement as they’re not central to your why.
Did each of your staff/board have similar answers? If not, you’ve got work to do! If you don’t have clarity internally, how can you expect to clearly convey what you do outside your walls?
This is where you can look at groupings of answers. If you have several different ideas competing for prominence, this can be the starting point for discussion. Is the heart of your mission all of these things? Are some of these things merely programs subsumed within your mission?
Review your responses to question #3. As a team, rank order these problems. Combine overlapping ideas. Remove any that are not strategic priorities.
Review your responses to question #4. Which responses solve more than one of your most pressing problems? What would it take to bring your wishes to reality? What’s possible/not possible?
From here you should be able to develop a plan to succinctly and compellingly reframe your mission, so you attract the resources most needed to bring your goals to fruition and leave a lasting legacy.