What is a Mission Statement?

Why does this organization exist? What does it do? How does it achieve its goals? Your mission statement should answer these three questions — ideally, in as few words as possible. Why? It’s easier to remember a short mission statement, which helps to keep it top of mind when people think of your organization.

Here are four examples of succinct, memorable mission statements:

  • The Humane Society of the United States: We fight the big fights to end suffering for all animals.
  • The National Wildlife Federation: Uniting all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world.
  • TED: Spread ideas.
  • Break the Cycle: Inspiring and supporting young people to build healthy relationships and create a culture without abuse.

Why Are Mission Statements Important?

Mission statements are important because they tell the public — as well as an organization’s employees or members — why the organization exists, what it does, and how it accomplishes its goals. When forming a nonprofit, your mission statement can serve as a blueprint for its goals. Mission statements also help potential donors and supporters know what they’re supporting, how an organization will use their contributions, and who their contributions will benefit.

In addition, mission statements ensure everyone within an organization is on the same page and provide a foundation for effective business planning. Organization leaders will refer to the mission statement as they make decisions to ensure each action aligns with the nonprofit’s purpose and goals. When determining the activities a nonprofit will pursue, which programs or services it’ll provide, or how to use and distribute contributions, mission statements help decision-makers choose the appropriate path forward for their organization.

Mission Statement Basics

A long, poorly written mission statement may turn away potential donors, supporters, employees, and members. Yet, even a short mission statement that’s too vague or too full of jargon can prove ineffective.

The most impactful mission statements meet these four criteria:

They’re Memorable. If you can easily remember your mission statement, you can carry it around with you and share it when and where needed. A memorable mission statement also helps others remember your organization and what it does.

They’re Focused. Strong mission statements are narrow enough to identify a nonprofit’s activities, but broad enough to allow for growth and expansion. Start with a narrowly focused mission statement and then broaden it, as appropriate, as your nonprofit grows.

They’re Compelling. Effective mission statements also must communicate the need a nonprofit addresses and the importance of the work it does. Who are its beneficiaries? What are their specific needs? Identifying your beneficiaries in your mission statement will help engage people’s emotions by telling them exactly who their support and contributions impact.

They’re Easy to Read. Avoid industry jargon and trendy buzzwords. Plain language the general public can understand will make your mission statement easier to read than one full of words familiar only to people in the field. Moreover, jargon in one field or industry may mean something different in another so you don’t want to confuse anyone with such language in your mission statement.

Getting Started

Follow these five simple steps as you craft your nonprofit’s mission statement:

Describe What Your Organization Does. Start by describing the specific services and/or public benefits your nonprofit provides. Does your organization combat violence against women? Does it prevent animal cruelty? What does your nonprofit do?

Describe How Your Organization Does What It Does. Next, describe how your nonprofit achieves its goals. To help keep this description as short as possible, consider the values of your nonprofit. Do you educate the public, provide a service, inspire youth, or ensure equality in the workplace? While your nonprofit may have multiple values, focus on the core values you deem most important.

Describe Why Your Organization Does What It Does. Describing why your nonprofit exists often reveals your organization’s spark or passion. For many people, this highlights why you wanted to start the organization in the first place — and provides a compelling part of your mission statement.

Draft Your Statement and Refine. Once you have your written descriptions for the first three steps, you’re ready to combine them into a single mission statement. Now read your combined draft statement and edit it, as necessary, to best suit your needs and purpose. Be sure to test it against the four criteria outlined above and revise further, as needed. This refinement process is important because many mission statements become part of an organization’s advertising and, ultimately, its identity.

Put Your Statement to Work. Communicate your mission statement both internally and externally. Make sure it’s visible on your website and within your marketing materials. You’ll likely even include it as part of your organization’s purpose in the Articles of Incorporation, and you’ll need it to fill out IRS Form 990. When people think of your organization, they should think of your mission statement. Of course, your mission statement is more than a catchy slogan — it’s also a business guide to follow and uphold.

As you work through the first three steps, ask people from your organization — like members of your board of directors, staff, and volunteers — to submit their answers to help you determine the best way to describe the what, how, and why of your nonprofit. Involving others also will engage and motivate them while helping to ensure key leaders, like your board members and planning committee, ultimately agree on your final mission statement. Some organizations may even find it helpful to have an outside facilitator and neutral party help with this process.

Then, when you’re ready to draft the actual mission statement, have a single, skilled writer tackle it vs. trying to write it as a group. Too many voices while writing may unnecessarily slow down the process as people argue over word choice and comma placements.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

The most common mistakes organizations make when crafting mission statements involve using buzzwords and business jargon and/or including unrealistic or unattainable goals. Both can negatively affect morale within an organization and lead to confusion. Instead, focus on crafting a mission statement that’s both coherent and realistic. Plain, simple language works best, but you can certainly craft the language in a way that’s not dry and boring. Just remember to keep it straightforward.

Conclusion

Your nonprofit’s mission statement is an important part of your brand, keeping everyone from the public to internal members and employees informed of what, how, and why you do what you do. As such, it must be memorable, focused, compelling, and easy to read in order to impact and engage your target audiences. With an effective mission statement, you can not only help attract supporters to your nonprofit, but also ensure your organization makes decisions that align with its overall purpose and goals.