How to Write the Ultimate Nonprofit Mission Statement

From Mundane to Memorable

Homeboy Industries displays it mission statement.
Are you as proud of your mission statement as Homeboy Industries?. Screenshot by Joanne Fritz

Mission statements have often been mind numbing, good only for bureaucrats and to impress funders.

But your mission is part of your branding, just like your logo or website design. That's why it must be outstanding.

Today's mission statements are often shortened to a few, pithy words that work across communication channels. The best ones express the true purpose of the charity and work well with branding, marketing, fundraising, and even your graphic design

An effective mission statement is more important than ever. Donors, supporters, volunteers look for them. Yours should be right up front on your website, in your annual report, and in your fundraising materials.

There is no one way to write a mission statement. Studying many examples should help you recognize what makes a good one. The best are highly readable and inspirational, but still answer the why, how, and for whom your charity exists.

The Benefits of a Compelling Mission Statement

  • It focuses your energy and clarifies your purpose. Writing a mission statement forces you to figure out exactly what your nonprofit does.

    You'll have to answer several questions. For instance, whom will you serve? Where are you doing your work? What specifically do you do and, maybe, even more, important, what are the things you don't want to do?

    A narrow focus works best to avoid the danger of mission creep.
  • It motivates board, staff, volunteers, and donors. A mission statement is not just for internal use or to submit to the IRS for tax-exempt status. It is a beacon that will attract new people and more resources to your cause. Make your mission statement compelling as well as clear. It will be your best public relations tool.
  • It helps to get IRS approval as a tax-exempt organization. If you plan to apply for tax-exempt status--501(c)(3) or some other IRS classification--the IRS will be looking at your mission statement to see if your organization matches its requirements for that type of nonprofit. Know what you are applying for and draft your mission to match the requirements.

6 Ways to Write a Mission Statement That Is Memorable, Not Boring

  1. Bring in many perspectives.
    Get lots of input from the community you plan to serve, as well as from your board, staff, and volunteers. 

    Inclusion will help you develop a broad base of support. You can get this input through meetings, surveys, or phone calls. Ask people what they think or need regarding the area of services you plan to offer.
  2. Allow enough time.
    Time spent now will pay off later. So don't rush the process. Take time to reflect on the information you gather, to write the first draft, to allow everyone to read it, and to make changes.
  3. Be open to new ideas.
    New ideas from lots of people are especially important for a charity's founders You may have had tunnel vision while getting your organization set up, but now it is time to get some fresh perspective so you can avoid founder's syndrome.

    ​Be open to different interpretations of what you should be doing and new ideas about how to accomplish your goals. Use brainstorming techniques to ensure that all ideas come forward freely. You can winnow them down later.
  1. Write short and only what you need.
    The best mission statements are brief and state the obvious. Your statement's length and complexity depend on what your organization wants to do, but keep it as short as possible. As Tony Ponderis says, the mission statement should be "...short enough to remember and easily communicate. Strong enough to inspire."
  2. Get help from a professional writer.
    A well-written mission statement can be the foundation for your organization's marketing and branding program. Consequently, it should not be written so that only managers and insiders understand. 

    A good writer can help you avoid jargon and stilted language. The goal should be a mission statement that you are proud to display and that everyone gets. Erica Mills in Great Mission, Bad Statement suggests that you check out how easy or hard your mission statement is to understand by using a well-known test available right in Word docs.
  3. Review your mission statement frequently.
    The American Heart Association, for instance, reviews its mission statement every third year, but they change it only every few decades.

    Cass Wheeler, a long-time CEO of the American Heart Association, says in his book, You've Gotta Have Heart, "The environment changes and the organization changes, so a periodic review is important to ensure that there is alignment of purpose and reality."

5 Things to Avoid in a Mission Statement

  1. Jargon that only professionals in your particular field understand.
  2. Stilted, formal language.
  3. Passive voice (passive: "xyz is an organization that helps women achieve independence"; active: "xyz helps women achieve independence.")
  4. A focus on the group, rather than the people it serves.
  5. Generalities, such as "saving the world" or "eradicating poverty."

Your mission statement is worth the time and attention you'll lavish on it. 

It could be the toughest writing assignment you ever take on, but the result can provide the bones for everything else you communicate about your charity.

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