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March 27, 2012
Essential #1: Determine the Mission and Purpose of the Organization

Creating a Mission StatementCreating an Organizational Mission Statement

As we begin our framework of steps that you and your board can take to ensure the maximum success and level of benefits that you can provide to your constituents, we start with our first essential: Determine the Mission and Purpose of the Organization, and also of the Board of Directors.

Though it may seem remedial, in reality this is where many nonprofits are tripped up. As important as missions are, nonprofits frequently go off in ineffective directions by relying on mission statements that can be little more than slogans. Many are too lengthy and ambiguous. And to be useful, they must be accompanied by vision statements and lists of values, goals, principles and objectives – which unfortunately many organizations just haven’t developed.

The organizational "mission" for a nonprofit is analogous to "profits" for private sector companies. In the private sector, corporations achieve their goals by carefully designing business operations that are reflected in a budget and then regularly reporting on how actual profits compare to that budget. And if mission accomplishment is as important as profit attainment in this ultra-competitive economic environment, why do most nonprofits not spend equivalent time in mission creation and monitoring?

This is because many mission statements have not been carefully constructed, and thus they cannot be used for regular and critical analysis, as is the case with corporate revenues and profits. Furthermore, many nonprofits do not instill the discipline within their organizations necessary to use the mission on a systematic basis as a tool to make daily decisions and achieve goals. The complete opposite is true of the revenue and profit budgets of successful corporations.

The organizational mission should make a compelling case for the need the nonprofit fills, the manifestation which outlines the reason for its existence. It should also clearly state the outcomes that you wish to achieve. The mission must be short and memorable, and appropriate for a variety of organizational stakeholders including staff, volunteers, funding sources and served constituencies. It must also be guide the creation of the mission statement for the Board of Directors.

However you should not fall victim to assuming that brevity suggests simplicity, which can lead to the conclusion that the process required to create or to rewrite a mission statement a brief exercise. That is far from the truth. But most mission statements err on the side of being too lengthy, with primary points buried in rambling, padded paragraphs – which greatly weakens its power.

The complexity of your mission statement and the delicate balance between too brief and overly long means that outside guidance in helping to create a new mission or revising an existing one can be of vital assistance. The process of creating a mission statement, often as important as the final result, may take several months. However, though the process is deliberate and comprehensive, it can be done in a way which creates a mission statement that will last for many years. This once again is why an experienced expert who can facilitate its creation and guide you through the process can be critical. This individual can help you take into account the core values and the outlook for the organization, which is the mission that the board is committed to achieve.

Nonprofit Board Mission & StrategyCrafting Your Mission Statement

A mission statement must clearly describe the nonprofit's positioning and strategy. When we discuss the word “strategy," we are defining what makes the nonprofit unique in the marketplace. In the private sector a clear and effective strategy (i.e., "uniqueness") facilitates attraction of customers, and that results in a profit. In a nonprofit a clear and effective strategy facilitates attraction of funds and provides the ability to take smart action. An effective strategy provides competitive advantage.

A well-defined mission statement is used as a tool to decide between various courses of action, a statement which is understood by employees and the general public in the same way over time and from location to location. It allows an organization to operate with focus and discipline, providing consistency in decision making over both time and geography. Is should be simple and clear to understand, not subject to multiple interpretations.

The process of creating this effective mission statement is just as important as the end result. Why is this? Because the staff and the board will have embraced this definition of strategy, and the statement can be used to create the board mission statement discussed below. Over time it is the board that is the keeper of the mission statement and the board should challenge the organization frequently to ensure that the statement is being lived up to just as the board of a private-sector corporation will monitor profit.

A great example of a nonprofit that has successfully implemented a strong statement is the Nature Conservancy, which states their 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." The organization has been highly successful over the years, thus their mission has remained unchanged for a long period of time. This is because their stated mission is simple – only 26 words - crystal clear and compelling.

For a nonprofit, making the right choices and actions are equivalent to making a profit for a commercial enterprise. As much time, resources and energy should be devoted to crafting your mission statement as that which is used to create a sales and profit budget. And your mission needs to be reviewed regularly on a set schedule, such as annually or even bi-annually to ensure that it is still accurate. Missions may changes over time, and the mission statement should be updated to reflect this.

For example, a local ballet company has a mission which states they are “dedicated to developing a ballet company, and to helping expand public awareness of, participation in, and appreciation of a broader range of the arts through dance.” While this may have been accurate upon inception – they no longer have any plans to develop a ballet company. Because the mission statement hasn’t been reviewed or revised in many years, this is the mission that must be used on all grant applications and all marketing. It creates a real problem when trying to communicate what the organization is all about. It’s confusing for staff, leadership and the general public, since this stated mission has nothing to do with their current status as an organization. Don’t allow your organization to fall victim to the problem of not periodically reviewing and revising your mission statement(s), and thus sharing information about itself that is unclear or perhaps downright puzzling to potential volunteers, donors and other community supporters.

Once you have created your organization’s mission statement, it’s time to create your board mission; as you will see, it is a different concept. Instead of what you are and want to be, it should be focused on actions – what your board will do to ensure that the organization meets its goals.

How the Board Mission Statement Differs From the Organizational Mission

If the nonprofit organization’s mission statement declares ‘why’ an organization exists, the board mission statement defines how the board will support the organizational mission. It is a foundation upon which a long-range strategic plan for the board is created; how the blueprint for carrying out the organization’s ‘business’ can be developed.

The long-range strategic plan, with its clearly stated and defensible programmatic initiatives and their respective costs, allows for the creation of the fund-raising plan from which specific fund-raising campaigns are organized and launched to secure annual, capital, endowment, sponsorship, and underwriting funds. An organization’s mission statement and board mission statement are at the CENTER of it all.

This first Essential is so critical because it then guides each of the others, without which a nonprofit can begin down a road which they don’t truly want to go. “Mission drift” can occur when clear boundaries are not established, which can lead to simply chasing money, and pursuing projects outside the original goals of the organization. Having well-defined and articulated mission statements gives the board and other leadership the permission to say “no” and refer inquiring constituencies outside of their scope to other resources, which can keep the nonprofit on track and not splinter its focus. And organizations with long histories can still benefit from taking the time to review, refine or rework their organizational and board missions and stated purpose to better align with how they exist in the present.

After the missions have been determined, it’s critical that all activities and priorities be centered on this mission and also vision (where the nonprofit is trying to go) of the agency. You should also develop a visual representation of how the organization should work (i.e. a logic model), and research case studies of similar (and successful, obviously) nonprofits across the country. However, remember once again that this relates to the overall functioning of the organization, not the board mission statement – which is unique onto you. If you need help, don’t be afraid to ask. The investment you will make here at the beginning of the process can make a HUGE difference in the overall growth and financial sustainability of your organization, and the impact you will end up having on the individuals or groups that you support.

Our next article in the series will examine the board mission statement, and what it should (and should not) include.

Next Up:Essential #1, Part 2 – The Board Mission Statement

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on March 27, 2012 at 1:56 PM
Categories: Board Governance
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