Enhancing and Updating Your Mission Statement

by Alison Reder

Having a clear and concise mission statement for your organization is essential. Without a solid mission statement, your organization will lack the necessary direction and foundation for operating as it moves forward. As we discussed last week, the mission statement is really an extension of the overall vision. I see the vision statement as the reason the organization exists and the mission statement as providing both the inspiration for getting out of bed and going to work each morning and the basic road map for achieving the vision. Of course, an organization needs to define its programs, goals and objectives as part of the process, but we will discuss that step in a future issue.

Imagine that you step on an elevator and realize that you are sharing the ride with the newly elected senator from your district who has indicated an interest in the very animal welfare issues that your organization addresses. You are going to the 20 th floor but the senator is getting off at the 12 th . You only have from the first floor to the 12 th floor to tell this senator about your organization. You are not going to hand the senator all of your many promotional materials, even if you have them with you on the elevator, so your mission statement serves as a one sentence elevator speech that will hopefully grab the senator’s attention. It is this quick message about your organization that should inspire the listener or reader to want to know more about who you are and what you do as an organization. (Don’t forget to introduce yourself, provide a business card and ask the senator if you can forward additional materials and arrange a meeting.)

If the mission statement is well-written and delivered effectively you will have answered four essential questions:

  1. Who are we? The answer to this question can be as simple as: “We are an animal welfare agency,” “We are a nonprofit neighborhood association,” or “We are a not-for-profit family resource center.” This is the bare bones description that provides a basic framework for the organization’s activities.
  1. What do we do? This is where you list 2-3 very specific things that your organization does. These are the direct activities of the organization.   For example, “provide food, clothing and job placement services” or   “conduct youth development and training workshops in inner-city schools” or “increase access to healthcare services,” and so on.   In other words, this part of the statement is about the “means” or the strategies/approaches that your organization uses to achieve the vision.
  1. For whom? Again, be specific. Who is your primary audience ? At-risk youth? Pre-school children? Battered women? All residents of a particular neighborhood? Low-income individuals? You will want to clarify your constituency including geographic, economic, racial, religious or other qualifiers that identify those who benefit from your organization’s work.   It is important to recognize that it is simply not possible to be “all things” to all people so you must be clear about your target group.
  1. To what end? This is the why . It answers how you will evaluate your success. For example, to lower poverty rates; strengthen families; improve inter-cultural communications; or lower pet populations. The “end” is the justification for the means discussed earlier. You must be very clear as an organization about where you are going (the end) in order to know if you have arrived.

Resist the urge to include every little thing that you think someone should know about your organization. The final mission statement should be clear, brief and intriguing enough to spark further interest.   In developing or revising your organization’s mission statement, keep the following eight tips in mind:

  1. The mission statement should strike a balance between providing clear direction for the organization in terms of the types of programs and services offered to the target population, and limiting growth by being so overly restrictive in its language that it precludes the organization from adapting to changing social, economic or political circumstances or internal organizational shifts.
  2. Remember that just like your organization, a mission statement should be dynamic . Over time, you will need to re-examine and re-affirm or possibly update your mission statement. We suggest an annual check-in with the mission statement . Is it still addressing the overall vision? For example, to go back to last week’s illustration of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.), over the years, the organization has revised and expanded its mission statement to explicitly incorporate the issue of underage drinking because of the extent to which it impacts on the overall vision of addressing drunk-driving in this country.
  3. The mission statement serves as the foundation upon which new programs are introduced, certain programs are cut and new initiatives are started.
  4. As your organization looks at programming opportunities, funding sources, potential strategic partnerships and any of the other many challenges facing an organization, a well-written and current mission statement can provide leadership and staff with guidance when facing any number of organizational challenges.
  5. Organizations must find an appropriate balance between the mission and the money . In other words, you may have some programs that generate solid revenues for the organization, but that are not necessarily mission-driven. On the other hand you will likely also have one or more programs that directly relate to the mission but that either do not generate a profit, or possibly even operate at a loss.
  6. A good mission statement will support your marketing efforts by providing an organizational “sound bite.”
  7. Potential funding sources will have an understanding of where their money will be going and why.
  8. Your mission statement will differentiate your organization from others and will help position you in the community by providing a clear picture of who you are, what you do and why your organization deserves the attention, funding and support of the community.

Tips from a reader, Dennis Hebert: ” One process that I use to “update” a mission statement is somewhat simplistic but effective for me.   I ask myself this question: what do we want to be when we grow up?   We exist and we serve, perhaps with varying degrees of success but have we “grown” as an organization and does our mission statement reflect this?   Does this mission statement reflect not only who we are but also where we are going?

“Does this mission statement present the image of this organization that we wish to market and does it allow for a holistic and inclusive approach with which a reader can identify?   Is the mission statement dynamic and result in the reader wanting to know more about the organization?   But even more than these issues, does the mission statement make sense to our staff and is it a useful tool to enhance our work?

“Too often, the mission statement is seen as a pro forma exercise that gets lost in the files and is only found during grant writing sessions or for annual reports, etc.   But in a fundamental way, it is a building block that continues to ground your organization and helps everyone to deal in reality during crises.   You can’t do more than what you are capable of doing but you certainly can aspire to fulfill your maximum potential as an organization.

” In the final analysis, updating your mission statement is a very useful management tool and it allows you to begin the process of assessing where you are in your development.   It is certainly possible for an organization to “grow” too fast as well as develop too slowly.   So what has your growth pattern been and what do you need to do to “be all that you can be”?   You may change your mind about what you want to be when you grow up but you have to start somewhere.”

Tips from another reader who facilitates vision/mission development sessions for independent living centers: “The organization Mission is built from the Vision. I simply ask ‘What do you do to implement your Vision?’ – The resulting list of (goals) strategies – the What we do to fulfill the Vision – become the Mission (goals).

“The next phase is how we implement the Mission (goals).

“By asking ‘How do we accomplish (activities)?’ – the – What we do (goals)  – generates a list of  the day-to-day activities to implement the Mission (this will become elements of the strategic plan). Using a What and How approach is something boards and managers can easily understand.

“If the agency wants to go into greater depth, we can take the process further to the values and behavior level where we identify what benefit (value to the consumer) will be received and what performance standards (behaviors) are needed to guarantee those benefits.

“Organizational development needs to remain a simple process in common language if agencies are going to understand and implement change.”

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