Mission statements have often been ponderous things, suitable mainly for an internal audience and to impress institutional funders.
Today, mission statements are often shortened to a few, pithy words that can easily be used across communication channels. The best ones both express the authentic purpose of the charity and serve as a building block of its branding and marketing.
An effective mission statement is more important than ever. Donors, supporters, volunteers look for them. Indeed, they should be right up front on your website, in your annual report, and in your fundraising materials.
There is no one way to write a mission statement. Studying many examples will broaden your thinking about what is possible and what makes a good one. The best are highly readable and inspirational, but still answer the why, how, and for whom your charity exists.
The Benefits of a Compelling Mission Statement
- Focuses your energy and clarifies your purpose. When you try to write your mission statement, you will find that you have to really define what you are going to do. Many questions will come up that must be resolved. For instance, whom will you serve? Are you concerned about just your local area? Be careful to keep your mission narrowly focused to ensure that you don't bite off more than you can chew.
- Motivates board, staff, volunteers, and donors. A mission statement is not just for internal use or to submit to the IRS for tax-exempt status. It is a beacon that will attract new people and more resources to your cause. Make your mission statement compelling as well as clear. It will be your best public relations tool.
- Helps to get IRS approval as a tax-exempt organization. If you plan to apply for tax-exempt status--501(c)(3) or some other IRS classification--the IRS will be looking at your mission statement to see if your organization matches its requirements for that type of entity. Know what you are applying for and draft your mission to match the requirements.
How to Write a Mission Statement That Is Memorable, Not Mundane
- Bring in many perspectives. Get lots of input from the community you plan to serve, as well as from your board, staff, and volunteers. This will help you develop a broad base of support. You can get this input through meetings, surveys, or phone calls. Ask people what they think or need in regard to the area of services you plan to offer.
- Allow enough time. Time spent now will pay off later. So don't rush the process. Provide time to reflect on the information you gather, to write an initial draft, to allow key participants to read it, and to make changes.
- Be open to new ideas. This is especially important for the founders of the organization. You may have had tunnel vision while getting your organization set up, but now it is time to get some fresh perspective. Be open to different interpretations of what you should be doing and new ideas about how to accomplish your goals. Use brainstorming techniques to ensure that all ideas come forward freely. You can winnow them down later.
- Write short and only what you need. The best mission statements are short and state the obvious. Your statement's length and complexity depend on what your organization wants to do, but keep it as brief as possible. As Tony Ponderis says, the mission statement should be "...short enough to remember and easily communicate. Strong enough to inspire."
- Get help from a professional writer. A well-written mission statement can be the foundation for your organization's marketing and branding program. Consequently, it should not be written in a way that only managers and insiders understand. A good writer can help you avoid jargon and language that is stilted. The goal should be a mission statement that you are proud to display on your website and in your publications, and that everyone can understand and remember.
- Review your mission statement frequently. The American Heart Association, for instance, reviews its mission statement every third year, but it is changed only every few decades. Cass Wheeler, long-time CEO of the American Heart Association, says in his book, You've Gotta Have Heart: Achieving Purpose Beyond Profit in the Social Sector,"The environment changes and the organization changes, so a periodic review is important to ensure that there is alignment of purpose and reality."
5 Things to Avoid in a Mission Statement
- jargon that only professionals in your particular field will understand.
- stilted, formal language.
- passive voice (passive: "xyz is an organization that helps women achieve independence"; active: "xyz helps women achieve independence.")
- a focus on the organization, rather than the people it serves.
- generalities, such as "saving the world" or "eradicating poverty."
Your mission statement is worth the time and attention you'll lavish on it. It could be the toughest writing assignment you ever take on, but the result will provide the bones for everything else you communicate about your charity.