Mission Ridiculous

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 4th, 2013 in Thoughts & Commentary

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In association with an assignment to research and critique three mission  statements, one of my students recently pointed out that the Stanford Social Innovation Review recommends eight word mission statements as the ideal standard.  Seriously?

She also noted some findings from TopNonProfits.com that examined the mission statements of 50 organizations on its top 100 nonprofits list.  A few of its key findings?

15.3:  the average number of words in the mission statements of these organizations

2: words in the shortest mission statement

235:  words in the longest mission statement

Again, seriously?

A number of things seem to be happening.

  • We are taking America’s average attention span and encouraging it to get ever and ever shorter.  According to statisticbrain.com, the average attention span in 2013 was 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000.  A goldfish, however, according to this same sight, has an attention span of 9 seconds—apparently in 2012 and in 2000.  No loss there.  Other statistics put the average attention span into minutes; so our our attention span is declining, be it measured in minutes or seconds.
  • We are confusing tag lines and mission statements.    Tagline gets varying defined as a catchphrase, slogan and “ending line, as in a play or a joke.”  A joke.  That’s what these tagline-like mission statements are:  a joke!  Mission statement, on the other hand, gets variously defined as a summary of an organization’s purpose, objectives, measures of success.
  • We are forgetting the purpose of a mission statement.  It identifies purpose, it bonds those who believe in it, it communicates to the uninitiated, it inspires, it sustains, and more.  Jim Collins identifies an organization’s mission as 50% of its core ideology—the fuel that sustains a great organization over the long history of its success.  That cannot happen in two words, or even eight.

I recently facilitated a retreat of board members and senior leaders at which there was a lively discussion about whether the organization needed a vision statement—in addition to its mission statement and its strategic plan.  The new executive director thought one was necessary; the board, not so much.  An early comment in the discussion, from a senior leader and supported by others in the group, was that absolutely, a vision statement was warranted:  the organization needed that inspirational statement to keep everyone engaged and excited.  Seriously?  If she wasn’t already excited and inspired by the organization’s work, what was she doing there on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in September?

What is happening to the classic mission statement?  It has been turned into a tag line that is cute, and perhaps even catchy, but says absolutely nothing of value to set one nonprofit apart from its similar peers, to inspire its community, to guide and define its course of action, to tell us for what it stands.

How many statements does one organization need to lead it down its correct path?  What do we get by having layer upon layer of purpose statements—tagline, mission statement, vision statement, strategic plan?   Truly, the only difference between a mission and a vision is that  the latter speaks of a dream (or, perhaps an hallucination) that all too frequently is unachievable.  If your mission doesn’t inspire, perhaps you need to go back to the beginning and ask yourself the very basic and all important question:  why does my organization need to exist?

While some would agree the need for this hierarchy of statements—a strategic plan which details the vision of the organization for the next, say three, years; a mission that sets out its overarching goals; and a vision that speaks of an unattainable world—brings clarity of purpose, it really reveals an organization’s great confusion and inability to inspire itself.  While some say all of these statements are a sign of greater clarity within an organization, it appears to me that they are just another indication of how some nonprofits have lost their way.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.

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