mission-driven practices

Does your mission statement impact your fundraising efforts? This should come as no surprise: Research I recently conducted suggests that it does. Even without this research, you’ve likely intuited that an effective mission statement draws supporters and donors in and gets them excited about helping you achieve that mission.  

I recently presented two academic research papers as part of my graduate studies. The results have me rethinking how mission statements affect a nonprofit’s fundraising efforts. Below I’ll share what that research involved and what we learned. 

Before I dive in, here’s a look at how we approached this research: My colleagues and I randomly chose 200 U.S.-based nonprofits from Candid that serve the homeless population. For each one, we recorded their mission statement. Then we recorded key metrics from their IRS Form 990s from 2016-2018. We then ran the following studies using this data.

Study 1: How sad is your mission statement?

In our first project, How Sad is Your Mission Statement? The Moderating Effect of Mission Statement Polarity on Performance, we used a package in the program R Studio to measure the emotional polarity of the 200 mission statements. 

In less technical terms, the software took into account the words we fed it and gave us a numeric representation of how positive, negative, or neutral the mission statement sounds. We then compared how that emotional polarity score interacted with the organizations’ financial data. 

What we found was that the results depended on an organization’s size. For nonprofits with gross revenue under $1 million, a more positively-worded mission statement was associated with more money raised per dollar spent. However, for larger organizations, the relationship was reversed.

The graph below compares the money spent on fundraising to the money earned from fundraising and by mission statement polarity for organizations that earn less than $1 million annually.

This graph compares the money spent on fundraising to the money earned from fundraising and by mission statement polarity for organizations that earn more than $1 million annually.

Study 2: Who do nonprofits serve?

For our second project, Who Do Nonprofits Serve? An Exploratory Analysis of Nonprofit Mission Statements, we ran a different kind of analysis. We manually read each mission statement and identified what percentage of each mission statement corresponded to ten codes based on prior research other scholars had conducted on mission statements. 

These codes identified which words in each mission statement talked about beneficiaries, donors, products/services, market (geography), technology, organizational survival, philosophy, self-concept, public image, or employees. 

Once we had that information, we applied a statistical method called exploratory factor analysis to uncover themes that might be present in the data set. Once identified, these themes could similarly be compared statistically to spending and earning. 

The first thing that caught our eye was that a mission statement that focuses on the organization—including language around organizational survival and self-promotional language—was associated with higher income per dollar spent. This surprised me because this is the kind of language that I would normally caution clients to limit when crafting communications.  

The second discovery that struck us was that mission statements that focus on beneficiaries and on the organization’s philosophy were strongly related to higher revenue compared to expenses. This felt more aligned with what I expected to see based on my professional experience.

Advice for crafting your mission statement

First, a disclaimer: I know that marketing and fundraising include a lot of touchpoints, and that most donors aren’t deciding whether to donate based solely on your mission statement. So, to be clear, I’m not claiming that these two studies give definitive new rules to follow by any means. 

However, based on what our research showed, here are a few things I would consider when evaluating your current mission statement or drafting your first one: 

  • Include your organization’s beneficiary and philosophy as central pieces of your nonprofit’s mission statement. 
  • If your organization’s annual budget is less than $1 million, consider making the tone of your mission statement as positive as possible. This should be a hopeful message focused on your philosophy and vision for the world you’re working to create.
  • However, if your organization’s annual budget is more than $1 million, consider putting more emphasis on the problem you’re working to solve and create a statement with that skews slightly less positive. 

I hope this helps you when thinking about your mission statement!

Nonprofit Sustainability

Sarah Willey
Sarah Willey, MA, CFRE, SMS is an experienced fundraising professional with a passion for learning, teaching, and building community. She works as a coach and consultant with nonprofits across the US and Canada to build sustainable individual giving programs and write great communications. A lifelong learner, she holds a master’s degree in nonprofit management from Washington University in St. Louis as well as the CFRE certification and a social media strategist (SMS) certification from the National Institute for Social Media, and is now pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at the University of Missouri - St. Louis and expects to complete her dissertation in 2023. Sarah can be reached at sara[email protected]