Where do the other words go?
Recently, at a meeting with the senior staff of a nonprofit, to discuss strategy and marketing, I mentioned that I had taken a quick look at their mission statement and cut it by 90%, from 224 words to 21.
After a moment of startled looks (and one discreet, knowing smile of agreement), the CEO, who claimed authorship of the current statement, asked what would happen to the other 203 words.
That was a good question. They were important words that greatly helped to make the case for the organization. But they were about how, not why. The answer: they don’t have to go very far. The same web page or annual report page or trustee manual page that holds your mission can have below it statements of values, principles and how we do this. These flow from the mission statement, give context to it, and / or share additional information that existing and prospective stakeholders may want to know, but they don’t help to make a primary, compelling, memorable, and generative statement of mission.
An effective mission statement is short, crisp, and easily understood and remembered. It resonates with the stakeholders and prospective stakeholders (including funders) whose attention must be attracted and held, and whose engagement is required for ongoing success.
The editing process is like a mission statement: It can be wandering and unproductive, or focused and effective.
In the preparation phase of a strategic planning project a few years ago, I asked about the mission statement. I was told that the board had decided to work on the 131-word statement over the previous year, to refine it and tighten it up. At the end of that year the statement was 137 words long.
This captures the usual perception of mission statement exercises. Without strong, informed leadership, a well-articulated sense of purpose, and a well-conceived process, rewriting a mission statement can be a waste of time.
However, armed with an understanding of the true value of a mission statement (Critical Issues #7, On a Mission), the process can be quick, painless, and very rewarding. At this institution a subcommittee of staff and trustees tackled it again as part of the planning process, and with the leadership of a savvy staff member, they ended up with 24 words that eloquently expressed the unique nature of the institution.
The new, concise mission statement concentrated the attention of both internal and external audiences on the essential qualities that differentiated the institution, and drove the way they spoke about it. It shaped the strategic goals of the planning process, and suggested the critical metrics that could be used to keep the institution focused.
For a before and after look at this example, sign up for our free webinar What’s a Mission Statement Worth?, on October 13.
If you think your nonprofit’s mission statement is already a great one, enter our Whats Your Mission? Competition. Win publicity & free consulting.