Developing a Mission Statement

Dear Kim,

Can you tell me how to write a mission statement? I will greatly appreciate it.
—Mission Impossible

Dear Impossible,

A mission statement is a one or two sentence (short sentence) summary of an organization’s basic beliefs. It answers the question, ‘Why do you exist?’ and thus usually begins with the words, ‘We believe…’ or ‘Because…’ or else those words are implied.

To write it requires sitting still for a few minutes and allowing yourself to feel deeply why you do the work you do. I don’t know you, but if you are like 90% of the people I have met in nonprofits over the past 25 years, you are smart, dedicated and hard working. You could work elsewhere for less hassle or more money or fewer hours (or all three), but you don’t. Why? The view from your office? The free pizza at meetings? I doubt it. Why? What do you basically believe about your work? That’s a mission.

To get an organization to adopt a mission statement, ask everyone who needs to be involved to do the same exercise and share results with each other. Often a wonderful statement will emerge. The idea is that every organization has a short, easy to understand message that everyone in the group uses when introducing the organization. For example, a health care clinic says, ‘We believe health care should be a right and not a privilege.’ Whenever anyone asks what they do at the clinic, they start with that message. Then they go on to describe various things they do which will reflect the interest of the speaker or the person they are speaking to. Some people talk about treating undocumented workers, some people focus on focus on their health care prevention classes and still others on their STD screenings. Or, an arts program in an inner city school system might say, ‘We believe in the power of art to change the world.’ They go on to describe how they change the world of their students in their mural projects, their art history classes and so on, and how they change the stereotypes about inner city kids on the part of people who see the art their students create. Some people will say, ‘Those are slogans.’ Yes, they are, but they are also mission statements because they name a bottom line belief that everyone in the organization shares. A mission statement does not have to be a slogan, but the longer it is, the less likely people are to remember it and they more likely they are to make it into a short statement that may or may not reflect what the organization wants people to say about it.

In short, you write a mission statement by focussing on passion and belief. Don’t worry about semantics. The right words will emerge.