In my nonprofit audit career, I’ve read countless mission statements. Most of the statements I come across are solid - short, clear, and conveying a message that represents the organization's purpose. However, there have been too many times when I've read a mission statement and had no recollection of it the following day. Or worse - been left scratching my head in confusion. To help prevent this, here are three tips to make sure your mission statement sticks!
Make It Clear
This tip sounds obvious, but it's surprisingly easy to take for granted. When you spend every day working on a particular issue, you gain a level of knowledge and understanding that may not be shared by the general public. That can lead to making assumptions or speaking in a shorthand that's not easily understood by others. Sometimes a mission statement isn’t the no-brainer you might think it is.
For example, consider the following mission statement: "To build basements in homes for large families that lack financial means." As someone who grew up in San Diego (where basements are rare) and had never even set foot in a basement until a few months ago, it's not immediately obvious to me why this is a problem that needs solving. Behind this mission statement is the unspoken understanding that finishing or adding a basement to an existing house is a cost-effective way to increase livable space, improve quality of life, and retain community ties for large families who cannot afford to move out of insufficient housing. But for me - whose knowledge of basements comes exclusively from Home Alone and That '70s Show - that understanding simply isn't clear. It's not enough to describe your approach to a problem if the public doesn't understand why it's a problem.
Make It Positive
More often than not, nonprofits are trying to improve or solve tragic situations. From poverty and hunger, to disaster relief and intolerance, sometimes mission statements can seem like an endless list of everything that's wrong in the world. Make sure your mission statement has a strong focus on the solution, not just the problem. What is the ultimate goal of your organization? How do you make the world better? Donors must believe that this issue is not unsolvable; and more importantly, they need to know that you believe that too.
Make It Short
Your mission statement is probably displayed on your website and marketing materials, but it has a prominent place on the first page of your IRS Form 990 too. Space here is limited - statements that are too long might get cut off or replaced with a reference to Schedule O. Many potential donors review previous 990s to gain a better sense of your financial position, so your mission statement should leave a good impression. Your mission statement should concisely convey your message, without overloading or confusing the reader. It's hard enough to get potential donors to stop and read about your organization - don't make them work harder than they have to to figure out exactly what it is that you do. Keep it short and to the point.
Every nonprofit organization is unique, and your mission statement should be too. After reading hundreds of different mission statements, the truly memorable ones are those that keep it clear, concise, and optimistic. It may be a struggle to get your mission statement exactly right, but it always pays off in the end!