by Molly Penn and Marita Phelps
You’re riding in an elevator with someone who asks what you do – you have about 3 minutes to answer them succinctly, powerfully, compellingly so they ask you more. What do you say?
A great mission statement is just that – it quickly orients someone who does not know your organization to what you do and why that is important. The role of a mission statement is to describe what you do in clear terms so the listener immediately “gets it.” More importantly, great mission statements also describe why that is important. Here are the definitions of a vision statement vs. a mission statement to help situate you:
Vision Statement: Describes why your organization exists – the purpose that drives you. It is aspirational and motivational – designed to get others to join you in this purpose.
Mission Statement: Describes what you do to achieve your stated vision. It is practical and specific – designed to help you vet opportunities and clarify your day-to-day work.
Here are some key questions to ask yourself when framing or refining your mission:
WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO?
How would you describe the work your organization does (avoiding jargon)?
Are there different approaches to your major areas of work (i.e. advocacy, direct service, etc.)?
How do you do your work – what are your different activities, broadly described?
FOR WHOM DO YOU DO THIS WORK?
How would you describe the population you serve?
How would you describe where they are (geographic location)?
Is there a characteristic they share (i.e. children of incarcerated parents, members, people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, etc.)?
Traits of Effective Mission Statements
A clear and compelling mission statement tells people inside the organization what you do to achieve your vision. It also tells those you want to convince to join you – funders, partners, clients/audiences – why what you are doing is important.
The strongest mission statements help you answer the question “does this fit our mission?” when faced with difficult decisions, yet are broad enough to leave you room for new opportunities you may not have thought of yet.
The strongest mission statements clearly communicate the specifics of WHAT you do, for WHOM, HOW and sometimes WHERE. The best mission statements are not just there to inspire funders or partners, they are also decision-making tools, helping your clarify your priorities and evaluate opportunities that arise.
Examples of Effective Mission Statements
“Amnesty International’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.”
This statement does a good job of conveying that they work to promote human rights and that they do this through a combination of research and action.
“Roundabout celebrates the power of theatre by spotlighting classics from the past, cultivating new works of the present and educating minds for the future.”
This statement powerfully conveys the kind of theatre they produce – classics and new works – and that they engage in education of young people around theatre.
“To enhance quality of life for all as we age. We lead positive social change and deliver value to members through information, advocacy and service.”
This statement is clear about serving older people right up front. They serve them through information, advocacy and service, and it is clear that they refer to the people they serve as members – so it is a membership organization.
Teach for America
“Growing the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.”
They clearly view their work as movement-building – and they accomplish it by growing leaders who educate children in poverty.
PENN Creative Strategy facilitates bold social progress by providing strong process and creative ideas, supported by best-practices. We help leaders make effective and innovative decisions about the future.
We Can Help
We would love to work with you to guide your creation of a compelling and clear mission statement that inspires your board, staff, investors and partners to help you get there. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about how we might help.
Molly Penn is the President of PENN Creative Strategy, a consulting firm that partners with foundation and nonprofit leaders to build a thriving, just and relevant cultural & social sector.