During my college years it was often said that the fewer number of words you are permitted to write about a topic, the harder it is to do it. It takes clearer thinking and more discipline to express a thought when you have a tight word limit. If you have any doubt that this is true, start looking at nonprofit mission statements—very few are short and to the point—more often they ramble with extra phrases that go far beyond the statement of the mission.
I have always subscribed to what I learned about mission statements from the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management (now the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute.) In its book, The Drucker Foundation Self-Assessment Tool Process Guide by Gary J. Stern, mission is defined as “a precise statement of purpose” which should “fit on a T-shirt.”
In my years of leading nonprofits and serving on nonprofit boards, I have seen few statements that would fit on a T-shirt, even an XXXL sized T-shirt. Here are the most important four things that should guide the development of your very important mission statement:
- SHORT…. Is it short enough for your staff and board to memorize it in two seconds and remember it forever? Is it short enough to “fit on a T-shirt”? When asked by a friend or funder what the organization’s mission is, every staff member, every board member should have the mission statement rolling off the their tongues!
- CLEAR…. Is it straight talk with no fancy words, no words subject to differing interpretations? As the Drucker Foundation says in the text cited above, “Words should be chosen for meaning rather than beauty, for clarity over cleverness.”
- MISSION ONLY – Does it contain phrases about what strategy is to be used to achieve the mission? The following mission statement has tacked on a phrase about how the mission will be achieved: Our mission is to improve public schools by providing training for teachers. The word “by” in a mission statement usually signals a strategy, not a purpose.
- MISSION, NOT VISION – Is it really a statement of purpose, or a statement of a vision for a desired future state? Many organizations tack on phrases about what they want to have happen as a result of the mission, or they write a vision statement about the desired future and leave the precise purpose out all together. Vision statements are also important, but we’ll deal with that in a future post.
Mission statements are important for many reasons, but especially to help you decide what your nonprofit should or shouldn’t do. Every new project or program, every staff task should be tested against your well-crafted, precise mission statement: Will this work help us achieve our mission? If the answer is yes, do it. If the answer is no—run screaming in the other direction!