Mission Statements That Matter

Why is our industry plagued with so many terrible mission statements? You know the ones…they include meaningless words like “outreach” or “integrity.” Wordy, vague, fuzzy, with a gratuitous gloss of inspiration layered thick on the top. Completely forgettable and even our staff stumble on their words to get it out. If they do recite it correctly it’s a feat and you can forget about anyone getting truly inspired by it.

Here’s one reason: too many cooks in the kitchen. Everyone gets together around a conference table, or a board retreat after a long day of strategic planning and suddenly it’s a war of the words.  Even more likely it’s a passive aggressive battle of wills. Each side is pushing for their favorite quasi-jargon and in the end you get a collection of cobbled together buzzwords that together say nothing concrete.

Walt Disney has my favorite mission statement of all time, “to make people happy.”  Short, succinct, clear as bell. I can’t help but smile when I get to the word “happy.” Another favorite is the Ritz Carlton Hotels: “We are ladies and gentleman serving ladies and gentleman.” Can’t you just feel the 800 thread count sheets?

The best nonprofit mission statements demonstrate the essence of why the organization exists and how it makes an impact in as few words as possible. Is it clear? Is it useful? Is it succinct? Can it fit on a t-shirt? Do you have a meaningless “while” in there to conjoin two filler aspirations?

It’s a formidable challenge. The mission must speak to your uniqueness and core competitive advantages. Clarity is your greatest strength: it should guide the organization in making decisions. I started and led a nonprofit called Girlstart for 12 years; our mission was to empower girls in math, science, engineering and technology.  Simple but clear, so when presented with opportunities for character building programs we knew it was out of our mission.

Junior Achievement’s mission statement is “Educate and inspire young people to value free enterprise, business, and economics to improve the quality of their lives.”  They had me at free enterprise.

3 tips for better mission statements

  1. Be concise. Strive for one sentence. The “extras” you don’t want to part with can find a home in your core values.
  2. Focus on something quantifiable. Microsoft’s ambition is clear: “A computer on every desk and in every home, all running Microsoft software.”
  3. Make it reflect the difference you want to make.

Check out this fun video I originally saw on Katya’s blog for more ideas about writing a better mission statement.