Mission statements are hot right now. Everyone has one – from the Smithsonian to your local ten-pew neighborhood church. We can’t seem to get enough of them. Pastors and C-level executives just HAVE to have them and marketers joyfully plaster them across everything. They show up on our business cards, print collateral, websites, they’re even integrated into our logos!
As mission-oriented organizations, it just makes sense for nonprofits and ministries to have mission statements. At their best, they are a distillation of who we are and what we do. They encompass our core reason for existing. Here are a few from some well-known organizations:
The strength of mission statements is also their greatest danger. They are elevator pitches that make you feel good about what you and your organization do. But sometimes, the elevator stops at “feeling good” and we never move past the pitch and turn statement into action.
Defining the Mission
First, let’s take a look at what makes a good mission statement. A mission statement is, at its core, an expression of your organization’s agenda. It clearly communicates what you do to both your internal staff and your external audience. “We Do This.” At AM, our mission statement is:
“We transform lives through modern marketing and technology solutions.”
We recently updated the branding and focus of our company and, at the very beginning of that process, we spent weeks crafting this one sentence. We knew that this piece was critical. This statement would be our guidepost for action. Let’s break it down.
The AM mission statement has two major components:
We partner with life-changing organizations. Our clients are nonprofits and ministries that are affecting real change in the world, one person at a time. We have knowledge that our clients don’t and can do things that our clients can’t. We want to take the lessons that we’ve learned and the skills that we have and use them to help our clients change lives. If we’re not helping our clients change lives, we need to stop and rethink things.
MODERN MARKETING AND TECHNOLOGY SOLUTIONS
This is how we do what we do. This is our core competency. We are the marketing and technology people. We don’t have a grasp of the logistics of feeding hundreds of children in need. We don’t understand how to help families in crisis. We don’t have the resources to organize massive relief campaigns. What we can do is create tools and frameworks that will make it easier for our clients to do those things and we can help them get the message out to their audiences so that they can keep changing lives.
Notice that our mission statement doesn’t say “This is who we are” – that’s a positioning statement, not a mission statement. We have one of those too:
“AM is the leading digital agency for churches, ministries, and nonprofits.”
Positioning statements are important – crucial even – but they are basically definitions. Definitions don’t create action, they create starting points for conversations. That’s why many mission statements are paired with positioning statements. If you go to our homepage, you’ll see ours are paired up to show a clear picture of who we are and what we do.
But let’s be clear – they are not created equal. While positioning statements are important, mission statements are what drive companies forward.
What Makes a Great Mission Statement?
A good mission statement should clearly communicate what you do. But a great mission statement has a few extra elements.
- It should be short. If you can’t remember your mission statement, it’s not doing you a whole lot of good. It should be a distillation of what you do, not a detailed breakdown of services and programs.
- It should create resonance. When your target audience encounters your mission statement, they should think, “Oh, that’s me!” They should understand your mission and want to be a part of it.
- It should create distinction. If someone reads your mission statement and thinks, “Oh, they do that too?” your mission statement might be too broad in scope. When your mission statement is specific and refined, your organization can stand out.
- It should be a framework for strategy. Every decision that you make as an organization – every program, every event, every purchase, every contract – should be measured against your mission statement. Your mission statement should define your end goals and purpose specifically enough to work as a guidepost for the direction of your company and a framework for saying, “no, that’s not on mission for us.”
- It should tell you when to go home. This one is unique to nonprofits. Your mission statement should define the moment when you can pack up, turn off the lights, and shut your doors forever. It should tell the world, “When this is done, our mission will be accomplished.” Businesses can’t say that. When you run a business, there’s not really an end game. You just keep doing what you do. Nonprofits have a mission in the truest sense of the word. Whether it’s to end hunger, find a cure, preserve nature, or stop abuse, nonprofits have an end in mind and are passionately pursuing it. Your mission statement should tell people when you’re planning on stopping.
Moving from Mission to Action
A solid mission statement isn’t worth anything unless you use it to generate action. In fact, if your mission statement ISN’T generating action, it’s because it’s not TRUE. If your mission statement is false, your clients won’t care and your staff will think it’s nothing but hot air (at best), or an outright lie (at worst). On the other hand, a mission statement that’s grounded in truth is constantly reinforced by the work that you do. Your actual day-to-day operations become the best supporting argument for your mission statement. THAT is something that a client can care about. True mission statements become a flag that employees can wave proudly – a banner that they can rally around.
How do you know if your mission statement is true? You have to start by asking a few hard questions and measuring the answers against your mission statement.
Are we reaching the right people? Mission statements have two audiences – an internal and an external audience – but the primary audience for your mission statement is your internal audience. That’s where a mission statement will generate the most action. How do you know if your statement is working with your employees and volunteers? You look closely at the people who want to be part of your organization. A strong and effective mission statement helps create a culture that attracts like-minded and mission-driven people to the cause. So, are you hiring the right people? Is your mission statement reflected in your employee culture? If not, it’s time to take a close look at your mission statement because it’s not working.
Are we reaching the WRONG people? You may be reaching people but, are you reaching the RIGHT people? Even if you’re reaching your external target audience, you may ALSO be spending your time and effort on the wrong people. This may sound harsh but, if you’re spending time and effort on people outside of your core audience as defined in your mission statement, you are wasting your resources. Those resources should be going towards changing the lives of your core audience. How much more impact could you have if you focused all of your time, money, and energy on your core mission? Having a strong mission statement doesn’t just bring in great employees and motivate donors, it helps you stay focused on the core reason that you exist and gives you a framework for excluding distractions.
How does our mission impact our target audience? If you’ve written it correctly, your mission statement identifies your audience and your end goal. The only question left is, “How do we ACCOMPLISH the mission?” This is, of course, what you do on a day-to-day basis. The important thing to remember is to continually compare your actions to your mission statement to ensure that they match up. Are you meeting the needs of your target audience? Do your events make a measurable impact for them or do they just look impressive? When you constantly measure your decisions and actions against your mission statement, it will motivate you to make the hard decisions and become a driver for positive action.
The answers to these questions will directly affect your marketing, growth, and operational strategies. And that’s the point, really. Because, if your mission statement DOESN’T affect how you do your day-to-day work and plan for the future of your organization, then it’s just words on a page.