Essential #1: Determine the Mission and Purpose of the Organization
Creating 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.
Crafting 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
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
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
Next Up:Essential #1, Part 2 – The Board Mission Statement