The importance of a mission statement for a nonprofit simply can’t be understated. It is a public proclamation of your organization’s reason to be and why, quite honestly, the reason people should care about it. But writing an excellent one is difficult and must be well thought out. The best mission statements look outside of the nuts and bolts of what the organization does and brings in the values of those they look to for support.
Traditionally, a mission statement answers the question, “Why does our nonprofit exist?” It is about the today. It is a short statement whose intention is to clarify the purpose of the nonprofit.
Vision statements are completely different. Vision statements are an attempt to predict where the nonprofit is going. “What will be different going forward? What do we intend to become?” Both are important. But, as a statement that supporters, employees and the rest of the stakeholders can rally around, the mission statement may be the single most important communication tool a nonprofit has.
There are a number of guiding principals that an organization should employ in constructing its mission statement.
- Be single minded and specific – For most nonprofits, writing a mission statement that is specific would be something like this: To raise money for [insert cause]. But how is that at all differentiating? It’s over simplified and could apply to any nonprofit. On the other hand, there’s nothing worse than to read a statement that is filled platitudes and fluff. The mission statement should be just that, a statement. One idea that differentiates your organization from the myriad of other nonprofits you compete with for support.
- Think outside the organization – This is the most important direction in writing a mission statement. The statement should never be written from the perspective of the nonprofit itself. It should be written from the perspective of those you want to influence. When someone reads your mission statement, they should be able to see themselves in it. In this regard, it needs to answer the question, “Who am I when I am supporting, volunteering or working for/with this nonprofit?” Remember, it needs to be single-minded, specific and unique.
- Be aspirational – This is very closely related to #2, as it too needs to be from the perspective of the potential supporter. You want people, more than anything, to read the mission statement and think to themselves, “I want to do that!”
- Make it short – Some of the best mission statements are nothing more than a couple of words. Organizations often get so tied into what they do that they forget to cover the why. Focusing on making the statement short will force you to only think about the why. In doing so, it will be more memorable. Write the mission statement down, take a break from it, even for a day or so, and then come back to it and rewrite it with fewer words. Do this a few times and you will be surprised at how many superfluous words or ideas were in your first draft and how much clearer it has become.
A nonprofit’s mission statement should be the constitution of the organization. It should be a simple statement that serves as a mandate for everything the organization does, whom it hires and whom it serves. Your mission statement should not be a bunch of words that, after reading it, could apply to any of the nonprofits that exist today. While you may share a similar goal as any number of other organizations, a mission statement needs to unique to your organization. A simple question to ask yourself, “Could any other organization say this?” If the answer is yes or even maybe, try again.
There really is no magic in writing a really good mission statement that can rally everyone who reads or hears of it. It just takes discipline and a little dose of being hard on you. At the end of the day it will be worth it and could make all the difference in the world to reaching your organization’s goals.
Tom Dougherty is an internationally known brand strategist whose company, Stealing Share, is singularly focused on stealing share for clients. He had led branding efforts for many companies, ranging from IKEA to Lexus, and has helped nonprofits such as Welfare to Work and the World Affairs Council become strategic minded. He can be reached at 336.207.6455 or at the Stealing Share website www.stealingshare.com.