How to Write an Awesome Nonprofit Mission Statement

By Tony Swartz
Your nonprofit mission statement is your foundation. It shapes and influences everything from marketing and communications to culture, and it speaks to others about who you are.

Here’s something to think about, Harvard Business Review noted an interesting point in their article on nonprofit mission statements, “If mission accomplishment is as important [to nonprofits] as profit attainment [is to for-profits], why do most nonprofits not spend equivalent time in mission creation and monitoring?”

Most of our chapters burry their mission statements in their bylaws, then forget them. But the truth is that it’s very common for many nonprofits to not utilize one of the most valuable tools available to them, their mission statements, so how can your chapter skip the nitpicking and word choice arguments, and instead actually promote the work of your chapter by creating a statement that will reflect what you stand for, who you are, and how you do it.

This tool is for new chapters who wish to craft their mission statement, as well as for existing chapters to rewrite or freshen up their mission statement.

Why Are Mission Statements Important?

  1. A mission statement Clarifies the chapter’s Purpose & Determines its Direction, A good mission statement serves as somewhat of a North Star for your chapter. It’s a foundation for your strategy and a guiding tool for a multitude of activities: from planning advocacy to recreational efforts, to marketing your chapter. By definition, you can’t prioritize everything, and your chapter’s mission statement helps you clarify what to focus on.

  2. A Mission statement will Motivate members, volunteers, and Supporters: Mission statements do not only dictate and influence how organizations should act, but also heavily influence how members and volunteers think of their roles. A mission statement influences and shapes your organizational culture, and organizational culture is a crucial aspect of member satisfaction. We all want to believe in the work that we do.

  3. A Mission statement Provides a Template for Decision Making: In a sense, a mission statement is to an organization what a compass is to an explorer. If designed well, it will provide your chapter with a framework for making decisions throughout the organization. Your chapter mission statement can help you evaluate options and decide what’s best for your organization according to your preferred future.

  4. A Mission statement Focuses Energy & Attention: A well-crafted statement can help your chapter work through different problems and help your members to evaluate multiple possibilities. It is especially helpful when your chapter is being pulled apart in too many directions. A well-crafted mission statement allows your chapter to have consistency across time and changing membership.

  5. A mission statement can send out a Powerful Message to the Public: In one or two sentences, your mission statement sums up the essence of your organization. It speaks volumes about what you stand for, and it should make people want to know more about your chapter and support your work. Your statement must also clearly describe your chapter’s strategy, i.e. the actions that make your chapter’s reason for being unique. This is what attracts members and funding and it promotes wise actions.

What is a Mission Statement?

A mission statement should describe your chapter’s fundamental, unique purpose. It communicates the value your chapter delivers, and whom it serves and how.

Therefore, the best chapter mission statement is a succinct encapsulation of:

  1. Why your chapter exists.

  2. Whom it serves.

  3. How it serves them.

Some organizations struggle to differentiate between a mission and a vision statement. Although both mission and vision statements are to capture the essence of your chapter’s beliefs and values, a vision statement explains the overall goal of your organization looking into the future, while the mission statement outlines the present plan to realize your vision.

Tips for Writing an Awesome Mission Statement

  1. Make it clear: Your chapter’s mission statement should be unambiguous, simple, and easy to understand. This is not the time to show off your vocabulary. Use simple and concrete language, and avoid buzzwords and jargon.

  2. Make it concise: A well-crafted mission statement should also be brief and to-the-point. This is often one of the hardest tasks, but try to keep your chapter’s mission statement at five to fifteen words, twenty words maximum. Avoid words twelve letters or four syllables long and don’t use more than one word string (A, B, and C).

  3. Make it informative: A mission statement should, above all, inform others about what you do and guide your members and the community. It doesn’t matter how concise or catchy it is if it doesn’t do that.

  4. Welcome participation: Throughout the process of crafting your chapter’s mission statement, it is important to welcome participation not just from chapter leaders but from the entire membership.

  5. Stay open: It is also crucial to stay open throughout the process. Sometimes, fiery discussions arise when talking about mission and vision statements and it can happen that individuals disagree on everything from purpose to wording. Depending on how serious you are (and depending on your budget), you might want to consider hiring an external consultant or facilitator to guide you and your team throughout the process.

  6. Keep the balance: When writing a mission statement, it is important to understand the balance between the mission statement as a part of your chapter’s public image and the mission statement as a reflection of your chapter’s beliefs and desires.

  7. Review your mission statement frequently: Once finalized, your chapter’s mission statement should be reviewed frequently, as much as annually, so as to always accurately reflect what your chapter does and stands for.

Some steps to consider in the development of a mission statement

  1. Get your membership Together for the specific task of developing or reworking your mission statement.

  2. Set aside a specific time.

  3. Try some Story telling: One of the fastest and most interesting ways to get to the heart of your chapter’s mission is to use storytelling. Weave a little story around something like, “What does it look like when our chapter is doing our best work?”, or “How would it look like if we were doing our best work?”.

A. Several years ago there were a number of intersections which were especially dangerous to cross. Now through our work, making the case for accessible pedestrian signals, it’s possible to walk from one side of town to the other in safety.

B. Through our presentations at schools in our district, every graduating student has a much more realistic opinion of the abilities of people with vision loss.

Through these stories you can begin to define what you as a chapter stand for and why you exist. Identify the most important and frequently mentioned parts of the various stories. Once you identify the most commonly used phrases, allocate each phrase to one of the five mission statement building blocks below:

Four mission statement building blocks

Action words: keep your action verbs high level, as in, to inspire, to empower, to help, to eradicate

TARGETED BENEFICIARIES: Who benefits from your work the most? As in, people with low vision, their families and friends, the community, the public.

SERVICES/Benefits: What services or benefits do you provide? As in, advocacy, fellowship, socialization, recreation, awareness.

Issues/Problems addressed: What issues or problems do you address or seek to solve? As in, development of public awareness, elimination of isolation, sharing of knowledge and techniques.

Audience: Other than your specific targeted beneficiaries, whom do you seek to reach in your efforts. As in, the general public, the elderly population, government officials, students.

Crafting a Mission Statement

Choose a minimum of two and a maximum of all 5 mission statement building blocks to craft your chapter mission statement. For the simplest solution choose ACTION plus TARGETED BENEFICIARIES.

Through sharing and discussion, craft several mission statements. If the moderator/facilitators cannot get everyone to agree on one or if there is still disagreement on the word choice, appoint a committee or final decision maker to take these mission statements and finalize the wording or have the final decision maker present the final mission statement to your chapter at a later date.

It’s strongly recommended not to use more than 4 or 5 of these building blocks when crafting a chapter mission statement in order to safeguard clarity and conciseness.

What to Avoid when Writing a Mission Statement 

  1. Generalities: A common mistake when writing a chapter mission statement is to make it too vague. As in, We help people.

  2. Formal language or jargon: as you are aware, The blindness and nonprofit world is full of buzzwords and industry jargon. Avoid it, and avoid formal language. The language should be at an 8th-grade level. Avoid such as, To protect people from harm with a range of outcome focused functions that are professionally competent and work within the operational context of their services, ensuring that they are quality assured, effective and efficient.

  3. Taglines: Taglines are often confused with mission statements. They can describe your organization, but they are no replacement for mission statements. They are brief and sharp, and a common marketing tool that is ever more present in the nonprofit world. Consider the following taglines.

Kodak: Share moments. Share life. Wal-Mart: Save Money. Live Better.

These taglines say very little about the organizations, while your chapter mission statement should provide a common understanding and provide clarity about what’s unique about your organization.

To avoid the tagline trap, many nonprofits use the following trick: Imagine your secret agent of choice, who is unaware of your organization’s existence. Now write your mission statement down in a sealed envelope, and hand it to the agent with the following instruction: “Your mission for the next year, should you choose to accept it, is to do this.” Would they know with a reasonable level of detail what they would be spending the next year doing?

  1. Hiding: Your mission statement should be everywhere! If it isn’t already, it really should. Put it in your emails and email signatures, on your social media, on your promotional materials and merchandise, on your website. This way your members, volunteers, supporters and the general public will know and be reminded of what specific vision they are involved in and contributing to.

Here are Examples of Good Mission Statements from the nonprofit world.

  1. Bright Pink: “Bright Pink is on a mission to save women’s lives from breast and ovarian cancer by empowering them to live proactively at a young age.” Bright Pink created a mission statement that is clear and convincing. It’s easy to understand whom they help and how.

  2. Oxfam:”To create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice.” Though shorter, Oxfam’s mission statement clearly states why they exist and which problems they tackle.

  3. water.org: “Water.org empowers families with access to safe water and sanitation through affordable financing.” This mission statement leaves no doubt at what the organization does and how.

  4. American Red Cross: “The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.” This mission statement is unambiguous and easy to understand.

As with the American Red Cross, when possible, Strong visuals should accompany your mission statement when posted to your website.

A Quick Test for your mission statement is to Say it out loud. Is it easy to say? Does it roll off the tongue? Is it interesting? Test how memorable it is. Does it capture attention? Are you bored before you even finish saying it? Test this by having a member or a volunteer read or hear the statement and then ask them to repeat it a couple of hours later.

Get feedback from multiple people, especially the ones who are not familiar with the work your organization does. Ask them if they understand it and if they have suggestions for changes?

The mission statements throughout PCB are very similar. We tend to copy from one another. Here’s a challenge, Is it possible for your chapter to make its statement stand out without obscuring your mission? Conclusion: 

Each of our chapters has a mission statement because we gather to carry out a mission. Our mission statements are how we tell our members and the outside world what we stand for and believe in. As mentioned, every mission statement should encapsulate why our chapter exists, whom it serves, and how it serves them. It needs to be clear, concise, and informative.

Whether you’re writing your chapter mission statement for the first time or you’re sprucing up an old one, it’s important to dedicate time and effort and even some money to craft a mission statement which accurately represents who you are and what you do, one which is clear and memorable, and which guides and inspires your membership.

Finally, your chapter mission statement is not enough by itself. Have it lead your membership to make a jump and take action to achieve your mission.

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