How to write a nonprofit mission statement

You don’t have to craft a mission statement to be successful as a nonprofit. Many organizations get by without one, but if you make that choice, you’re setting yourself up for some potential problems down the line.

A mission statement can serve as a barometer for your business. As you make difficult decisions, interact with the community, offer different services, and promote your brand, your mission statement gives you a center to work from. As such, it’s a vital tool in keeping you focused on your primary goals and identity at any given time.

It can be tempting to solidify that identity in your own head when starting your nonprofit and leave it at that. But if you do, you risk letting your goals and points of emphasis slip as you add members to your team or get caught up dealing with urgent challenges.

You need a solid backbone to keep your nonprofit focused. What’s more, the mission statement isn’t just informative for you; it’s also beneficial for volunteers, staff, and community members as it helps them understand what you really stand for and are trying to achieve.

There are plenty of reasons to create a mission statement, but establishing a good framework begins with understanding precisely what a mission statement is meant to accomplish.

What is a mission statement?

Writing a mission statement isn’t terribly difficult. However, there’s one major challenge: understanding exactly what a mission statement is and what it should achieve. It’s easy to inadvertently stumble into creating values, purpose, or vision statements when thinking about your mission.

In short, your mission statement is a concise explanation of what your nonprofit does and how it wants to do it. For example, NASA is famous for having a great mission statement that describes what it does:

“Drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics, and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.”

It’s important to focus on the primary goal of your organization as you develop your mission statement. For example, if you run a scholarship fund designed to provide access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education opportunities for young women, a mission statement might be something like the following:

“We maintain funds to provide young women with access to scholarships as they pursue undergraduate education in STEM disciplines.”

Conversely, you’d want to avoid an overly detailed, nuanced mission statement like “We believe that people of all genders should have equal access to education and will work to manage a trust fund devoted to giving young women access to capital that will empower them to pursue STEM educational opportunities.”

Not only is this mission statement unnecessarily wordy, but it also includes a values statement — “We believe that people of all genders should have equal access to education” — that can distract from your core goal.

If you believe that individuals of all genders should have equal access to education, then why is the scholarship only for young women? That’s a question you can probably answer, but by incorporating the values statement into your mission, you create potential confusion among team and community members.

Focus on what you do in your mission statement. In many cases, it’s easiest to create a mission statement if you also create vision and purpose statements. These work together as follows:

  • A purpose statement explains why your nonprofit exists/what it is trying to achieve.
  • A vision statement defines what you want the communities you serve to look like as a result of your work.
  • A mission statement clarifies the actual work that you’ll do in a concise way.

Quick tips for crafting your mission statement

Once you have a clear understanding of what a mission statement is, you’re in a good place to craft your own. But there are some issues to consider to position yourself for success. Here are some quick tips to help you get going:

  • Be concise. You want the mission statement to be memorable and easy to keep in mind as you make choices.
  • Reinforce your ideas. Many mission statements are painstakingly crafted, only to be ignored once they’re in place. Keep reinforcing your mission to make the statement valuable.
  • Focus on why you started the nonprofit in the first place. Figure out how to turn that purpose into tangible operations that make up your mission.
  • Don’t get too hung up on details. Your mission statement is a measuring stick, not a prescription.
  • Get feedback. You want your mission to be easily understandable by volunteers and prospective staff members. Ask friends or family to read what you craft and tell you what they think so you can get some outside perspective on how you’re communicating your mission.
  • Don’t consider it permanent. Missions change and shift over time. If you try to create a mission statement that’s permanent, the prospect of change over time can leave you creating a broad, far-reaching mission that doesn’t adequately describe your current situation. You want to be specific, and that means applying your current context to your mission and revisiting the statement every couple of years.

A good mission statement is a simple thing, but it can be invaluable in guiding your business and keeping you focused on your primary objectives.

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