Fundraising How To – Developing a powerful mission statement

In our May newsletter, we provided an overview of the entity planning process. This month we will focus on that all-important first step – defining your mission.

Let’s start with where you are.

Here’s a quick quiz. Think about the nonprofit institution you’re involved with, and ask yourself—and perhaps others in your organization—the following questions:

  • Does our organization have a shared understanding of the work we do and why it’s important? Are we clear about what we don’t do?
  • Am I—and is the rest of the organization—committed to, and even passionate about, our mission?  Who else will care about this mission?

If you answered “yes” to both, I applaud you and your organization. If you didn’t, here is a framework with some key questions.

 mission statement

Engaging your key stakeholders in the discussion of these questions will go a long way toward getting their buy-in to the answers. One approach we’ve used with organizations is to conduct a mission workshop. As preparation, we interview each participant and synthesize their answers for discussion as a group. (Sometimes we use the event as an opportunity to identify key strategic issues and options as well.) By the end of the discussion, there typically is consensus around the key elements of the organization’s mission.

The next question: Can we articulate our mission in a powerful way to donors and other stakeholders? What exactly do we mean by “powerful?” Test your mission statement against these criteria. Is it:

  • Memorable
  • Differentiable
  • Credible
  • Inspirational
  • Aspirational
  • …and simple?

This part – the actual crafting of the statement – can be tricky. (One of my favorite cartoons shows a group of people sitting around a flipchart. The facilitator standing next to it offers a choice: “Would you rather work on a mission statement, or have your eye poked out with a stick?”) You don’t want to get into group wordsmithing. Better to offer a few alternatives, and then take it offline.

The key output of this step in the entity planning process: What you’re all about, as the basis for why you want and merit a donor’s support.

Need some inspiration? Here are a few examples of mission statements. How would you rate them?

Doctors Without Borders
[We] deliver emergency medical assistance to people affected by armed conflict, epidemics, malnutrition, natural disasters, or exclusion from health care in nearly 60 countries. An interdependent international humanitarian organization, [DWB] unites direct medical care with a commitment to bearing witness to the plight of the people it assists.

Rosie’s Place (Boston)
[Our] mission is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for poor and homeless women to maintain their dignity, seek opportunity and find security in their lives.

Arts Learning
[Our] mission is to encourage the active engagement of preschool through college students in developing their highest artistic and academic competence.

Nature Conservancy
[Our] mission is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.

Los Angeles Unified School District
[Our] teachers, administrators and staff believe in the equal worth and dignity of all students and are committed to educate all students to their maximum potential.

Toronto (Canada) District School Board
Our mission is to enable all students to reach high levels of achievement and acquire knowledge, skills and values they need to become responsible members of a democratic society.

University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer
[Our] mission is to eliminate cancer in Texas, the nation, and the world through outstanding programs that integrate patient care, research and prevention, and through education for undergraduate and graduate students, trainees, professionals, employees and the public.

Winchester Hospital (Winchester MA)
To care. To heal. To excel. In service to our community. 

INSEAD (international business school)
Our mission is to promote a non-dogmatic learning environment that brings together people, cultures and ideas from around the world, changing lives, and helping transform organizations through management education.

San Francisco Ballet
The mission of San Francisco Ballet is to share the joy of dance with its community and around the globe and to provide the highest caliber of dance training in its School. San Francisco Ballet seeks to enhance its position as one of the world’s finest dance companies through its vitality, innovation, and diversity and through its uncompromising commitment to artistic excellence based in the classical ballet tradition.

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