6 Tips for Writing a Powerful Non-Profit Mission Statement

If your organization were a car, your mission statement would be the tires. Without one, it would be really hard to go anywhere; it’s the part on which the rest of the components rest.

So, it’s important. You’ve got that. But what you need help with is creating a mission statement that’s strong enough to support your organization (just like you wouldn’t want car tires made out of silly putty) and flexible enough to allow you to respond to changes (just like how steel car tires wouldn’t get you very far either). Here are some tips on writing a mission statement that works:

Keep it short. One sentence. Maybe two. A good test for this is can you repeat it without having to “memorize” it? If you (and your staff) can’t repeat it often, it’s not going to do its job. The American Lung Association does a good job. Their mission is, “to save lives by improving lung health and preventing lung disease.” Easy. Short. Effective.

Stay specific. Yes, we have big hearts and want to help everyone. But being too broad can actually harm your programs. A mission I ran across when researching this article that demonstrates this well is:

Non-Profit XYZ exists to do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, in all the places we can, at all the times we can, to all the people we can, as long as we ever can.

Wait, what?! That sounds like a nice ambition, but it’s not a very effective mission statement. There’s a saying in the for-profit world, “the riches are in the niches” — and that applies in the non-profit realm as well. The more specific you can be about who you serve and why, the easier it will be for foundations and governments to fund you.

A program does not a mission make.  Many non-profits mistake a successful program for their mission. But remember, a mission statement describes the ends, not the means; it describes what you’re trying to achieve, your ultimate goal, not the programs you implement to fulfill your mission.

Using a program to describe your mission severely limits you. For example: The mission of AfricaXYZ is to collect personal computers in the United States and place them in schools in Africa. That’s an amazing thing, but it’s not a mission. It’s a program. Let’s say their program was really successful, so they wanted to start collecting computers from Europe. According to their mission, they can’t — they only collect computers from the United States. Or let’s say a cell phone company approaches them for a partnership. Well, darn. That wouldn’t fit their mission either, because they only collect personal computers.

See the difference? A better mission for this organization might be: AfricaXYZ provides technology to African students, so that they can achieve the same potential as children in first-world countries. Effective missions describe the why, not the how.

Use plain language. The people reading your mission are bombarded with millions of competing pieces of information vying for their attention. So, how do you stand out? Plain language. Use plain language by choosing a conversational tone and easy-to-understand words, among other things. Plus, for government agencies, plain language is required by law according to the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

Don’t try — do! It’s easy to let wishy-washy words sneak into our mission statements. Words like “try”, “seek”, “influence”, “encourage”, “works to”, “attempts”, “aims”, “helps” give the impression that we’re not actually successful in fulfilling our missions. Put a stake in the ground and use declarative words. The American Lung Association doesn’t “attempt to save lives”. They save lives. What does your organization do?

Avoid writing by committee. Yes, you have to get buy-in from others, but that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice the integrity of your writing. Watch this short video by Dan Heath with Fast Company to show how your really effective statement gets warped into a meaningless jumble of mess when other people get involved, and how to avoid it.

Your mission statement is the torch that will guide your organization for many years to come, so it’s worth the time, energy, and attention that you’re devoting. Have a tip you want to share? We’d love to hear it. Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.