A nonprofit’s mission statement is incredibly important, perhaps more important than even most experienced nonprofit professionals realize. Your nonprofit’s mission statement represents its guiding vision, its tagline, its funding pitch, and its broader purpose all in one or two short sentences. Sound like a lot for one statement to accomplish? It is.
That’s why so much thought should go into crafting the perfect mission statement in the earliest days of your nonprofit organization.
As the expression of your nonprofit’s guiding mission and purpose, your mission statement should definitely follow a few best practices. Follow these tips to ensure your mission statement hits all the marks:
- Understand the broader purpose of mission statements.
- Build a team to help write your mission statement.
- Make your mission statement actionable.
- Cut out all the fluff from your mission statement.
- Prioritize audience and tone in your mission statement.
- Run some quick tests on all mission statement drafts.
You already know that starting a nonprofit organization is hard work. Writing your mission statement is one of the first steps in the process, but investing that effort early will pay off!
By distilling all your nonprofit’s motivations, goals, and passions into one strong mission statement, you can create a sort of guiding light that will prove immeasurably helpful as your nonprofit continues to grow and develop!
Or maybe your nonprofit is already established but could use a mission statement update. After all, they’re notoriously hard to get right the first time! Be sure to read and remember these tips to make sure your mission statement is as effective as possible.
1. Understand the broader purpose of mission statements.
Writing a great nonprofit mission statement is a challenge because you’ll need to accomplish a lot with a small amount of words.
The primary task of your mission statement is of course to express your nonprofit’s purpose for existing, to address the issue or passion that brought you to nonprofit work in the first place. A strong mission statement will also help to shape your growth or guide your development.
Plus, a great mission statement will also explain your nonprofit’s work to the public, to donors, and to larger funding bodies! When applying for grants, particularly nonprofit startup grants and funding, a well-developed mission indicates a nonprofit that’s fully committed to its work and deserves support.
But remember, your nonprofit’s mission statement shouldn’t describe or explain everything about your nonprofit. That’s not its purpose at all. Instead, it should express the core of your nonprofit’s purpose.
When writing a mission statement, here’s an easy way to keep your efforts entirely focused on its broader purpose. These 3 elements sum up everything a mission statement should address:
- Drive. What issue are you working to address, and why? Who does your work try to help?
- Action. What specifically do you do to address the issue(s) that drive your work?
- Impact. What real-world effects or difference can your work make on the issue?
By remembering drive, action, and impact as you write a mission statement, you can keep it perfectly focused. A strong mission statement that evokes the core of your nonprofit’s purpose will naturally become a guiding document and advertisement to potential supporters.
Example: Here’s a simple template that touches on each of the most important elements.
This example mission statement hits all the important targets: driving issue, specific actions to address the issue, and impact goals of those actions.
2. Build a team to help write your mission statement.
As evidenced in particularly strong examples of nonprofit mission statements, it’s crucial that yours have a focused vision that’s ambitious yet realistic.
This is part of why it can be a great idea to write a mission statement with a team of colleagues in your nonprofit.
While it might at first seem that a team of individuals, each with their own voice and perspective, would reduce the focus of your mission statement, the opposite is true if your team works well together. After all, everyone at your nonprofit organization should have a shared vision of its purpose anyway.
When writing a mission statement, it can be too easy to get wrapped up in our own perspective on the nonprofit’s work and purpose. This is how organizations end up with weak mission statements that have glaring issues and don’t reflect a shared vision. Safeguard your mission statement by building a small team composed of the following individuals:
- Leadership figures, most likely your executive director
- Board members, dedicated to pursuing your mission
- Volunteers and stakeholders invested in your success
Use your mission statement team as a sounding board. Encourage them to draft their own version or jot down the most important points they think should be addressed in your mission statement.
Collect all these thoughts, then compile and compare. Draw from multiple perspectives to ensure that your mission statement reflects what your stakeholders most value about your work and consider your most important goals.
Example: Two team members write these simple drafts of a mission statement for their organization.
3. Make your mission statement actionable.
As touched upon in Tip #1, it’s important to focus on action when writing a mission statement for your nonprofit.
That’s because, no matter how admirable your overarching goals and driving purpose are, they’re ultimately abstract without grounding in concrete actions.
Think back to the founding of your nonprofit. You understand the big-picture issue that drove you to form a team, solicit support, complete a 501(c)(3) application, and start engaging constituents. To start your nonprofit you needed an extremely clear vision of how to accomplish the goals that drove you.
Your mission statement, whether it’s your organization’s first or a simply a new update, needs to include the how, not just the what and why.
In this context, actionable essentially means quantifiable. What specific, measurable difference can your work make as it addresses your driving issue? Remember, your mission statement’s job is to express your core purpose and get people interested in learning more about your work. This means that your audience needs to relate to your mission, and goals that are purely abstract are typically difficult to relate to.
Here’s a good test to make sure your mission statement is actionable and specific. Read your current version. According to this version, taken literally, could there ever come a day when you’ve completely accomplished your mission and solved your driving issue? If not, your mission statement might be too vague. Take some time to think about what defines success for your nonprofit.
Example: Which mission statement is more actionable and relatable?
4. Cut out all the fluff from your mission statement.
Conciseness is arguably the most important stylistic element of an effective mission statement.
Any phrases in your mission statement that don’t directly contribute to making an important point about your drive, actions, or impact should almost always be removed. Not only do they reduce the focus of your statement as a whole, they also risk distracting your audience of donors, stakeholders, or constituents!
There are a number of best practices to follow to keep your mission statement concise. Keep these in mind when drafting yours:
- Try to keep your mission statement to 1 sentence if possible.
- Focus only on your nonprofit’s drive, action, and impact.
- Keep your sentence structure simple. Break it into 2 simple sentences if needed.
- Cut out any nonessential adjectives from your mission statement.
As with the other tips in this article, following one best practice when writing a mission statement will strengthen the statement as a whole. For instance, working to keep your mission statement concise will naturally make it more specific, actionable, and memorable.
Example: Compare these two versions of the same mission statement.
5. Prioritize audience and tone in your mission statement.
Another key aspect to remember about writing a nonprofit mission statement is that it needs to engage with your constituents.
While it’s important that your mission statement serve as an effective elevator pitch for fundraising, it’s equally (if not more) important that your mission communicate your nonprofit’s value and purpose to those it’s trying to help!
Take a look at your current or working version of your mission statement. Who is it directed towards, or who is its imagined audience?
An easy way to examine the relevance of your mission statement to your nonprofit’s constituents is to analyze its tone. Strong nonprofit mission statements typically evoke a warm, engaging, and optimistic tone. Of course this is a subjective judgment, but it can be fairly easy to identify a weak mission statement by its tone and language.
A mission statement with poor tone or audience focus might be:
- Full of nonprofit sector jargon and buzzwords
- Way too specific
- Structured in overly-complex language
These characteristics typically result in a cold tone directed more towards donors than constituents, and they can give the impression that the nonprofit is more interested in attracting ‘investors’ than directly engaging with individuals.
While your mission statement should certainly play a part in convincing high-level donors that your cause is worthwhile, always consider this question: why should your constituents care about your work?
Example: Who do you think is the intended audience of this mission statement?
6. Run some quick tests on all mission statement drafts.
As you follow the tips in this article and begin to write some drafts for your nonprofit’s mission statement, always run them through some quick tests to determine the best ways to edit and develop them.
Here are some easy ways to judge and refine all your mission statement ideas as you work:
- Say it out loud. A strong mission statement is easy to say and never boring.
- Find similar nonprofits. Look up some nonprofits with missions similar to yours. Check out their mission statements to see if any techniques don’t work too well. This is also a great way to make sure your mission statement is unique among similar organizations.
- Test your memory. Read your mission statement draft to a colleague, then wait 5 minutes and ask them to repeat it. If they can’t remember any of it, your draft needs more work.
- Field some thoughts. Have each member of your mission statement team read a draft to individuals unfamiliar with your cause. Can they immediately identify what your nonprofit does?
By checking each mission statement draft with some of these quick tests, you can identify the most important ideas and priorities that continue to surface in each draft as you edit and adjust each one. What you’ll be left with are strong building blocks, each a perfectly honed point for explaining your nonprofit’s mission.
Then use these to guide your process as you write drafts, edit, combine, and finally create a single, perfect mission statement!
Writing a mission statement can be much trickier than it initially seems! That’s because a truly effective mission statement will accomplish a lot in only a handful of words.
If you’re writing your new nonprofit’s very first mission statement (or an updated statement for an established nonprofit), following a few best practices to keep yourself focused, concise, and specific will go a long way to ensuring your mission statement engages all your key stakeholders and evokes your guiding purpose perfectly!
Check out some additional resources for even more tips and guidance on some important aspects of getting your nonprofit up and running:
- Our Nonprofit Grant Writing Guide. Finding and applying for grant funding is an essential part of how most nonprofits operate. Check out our guide to getting started!
- 10 PayPal Alternatives for Nonprofits by Double the Donation. Gathering some effective donation tools early makes it easy to get started fundraising as soon as possible.
- 10 Steps to Starting a Nonprofit: An Essential Checklist. Make sure all your bases are covered! Read through and download our handy checklist for starting your nonprofit organization.
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