On a Mission

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on September 19th, 2014 in Thoughts & Commentary

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In the past week, I have read 69 mission statements.  Perhaps it is a Guiness Book of Records triumph, but that wasn’t the purpose. Perhaps it is one of the top 10 worst things I have ever done, but masochism was not the point either. It was done in response to an assignment I gave my graduate students: critique three mission statements. That assignment will most definitely be revised before next semester.  I simply cannot put myself through it again.

While reading 69 of anything in one week is not a particularly inviting task, this one should have at least had some inspiring moments. There should have been—at least once!—a statement that compelled me to look up the organization, if I didn’t already know it. (And, fortunately, the students were very creative in the organizations whose missions they did choose, very few of which were their own organizations, which, truth be told, I found very revealing).

But none inspired a reaction from me. No smiles, no increased heartbeat, no wow.  Nothing—except, truthfully, a massive headache. So bad, in fact, that I had to spread reading this assignment over a much longer period of time than I normally take on reading assignments.

Besides the physiological trauma suffered from this assignment there was psychological distress as well: great sadness. Why is that people—specifically nonprofit staff and board—and organizations don’t recognize the significance of a mission statement? And, do they understand the cost of having a poor one?

Part of the challenge in crafting a good mission statement is that you only get to have one version at a time (yes, a mission statement may be amended, but it is not something that should happen often) that must serve multiple purposes, all while being succinct.  A mission statement is at once a marketing tool, an essential component of your organization’s brand and an unwavering compass.

Yet mission statement after mission statement that I read gave me no clue as to what the organization did, represented or was striving to accomplish. One student picked three very different organizations each of which served health care professional. I joked with her that if we gave the three statements to health care professionals and asked them to match each up with the organization, no one would be successful.  All statements were big on the flowery and vacuity and absolutely absent on the particulars: means used, difference/impact sought by their work, on whose behalf were they working, etc. There was simply nothing there to guide, inspire, call hither.

With another student, I suggested that maybe between the three mission statements there was one good one for one organization. In the old days, when my teaching was face-to-face (as opposed to now where it is all online), I would give students a list of 10 to 12 mission statements of very well-known easily recognizable organizations and ask them to “name that organization.” Rarely did a group of students “guess” more than two correctly.  And those were mostly lucky guesses.

My point?  What good is a mission statement that doesn’t tell your audience what you do, where you do it, how you do it and why you do it?  What good is a mission statement that doesn’t provide a board of directors and staff with the parameters to guide decision making?  To help determine whether it would be good to expand to a new neighborhood or take on a new program or partner with Organization A or accept money from Funder Q?  What good is a mission statement that doesn’t define the strictures of what you are working so hard to achieve, to compel potential donors, staff members and volunteers to want to join the cause?

Kitchen sink mission statements absolutely allow an organization to flap all over in the wind, but there is absolutely nothing good in that position. Being all things to all people has never been a sustainable strategy—for businesses or individuals.
Take an honest look at how your organization uses its mission statement. Is it present at every board meeting to be that compass by which decisions are made? Or, is it pulled out only once every three years when your organization does strategic planning? Is the same mission statement used by the executive director as the development director as the program director—or does each have her/his own version? Is it used in assessing program outcomes and designing new programs? in employee performance reviews? in crafting a gift acceptance policy? Does it welcome people when they enter your space? Is everything that you do consistent with the very statement that explains the who, what and why of the organization’s existence?

As the competition in our sector increases, seemingly unabated, nonprofits had best wake up and understand the true power and purpose of the currently undervalued mission statement.

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.