Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
4 min Read
May 26, 2021

Writing a clear and powerful mission statement

A powerful mission statement is crucial to the success of any nonprofit organization. If a vision statement describes the big picture of your work, the mission statement needs to explain what your organization actually does—how you will achieve your vision.

Having a guiding mission statement gives your entire team a shared motivating purpose. It can also be used to help set strategy and clarify decision-making.

Five key characteristics

  1. A mission should be reflective of your positioning, the one big idea you want people to think about your organization, and personality, your organization’s tone and style.
  2. A mission should be free of jargon—no insider language or phrases that wouldn’t be understood by people outside of your organization (or without a dictionary).
  3. A mission should be concise—while it needs to say what your organization actually does, it shouldn’t go into each element in great detail.
  4. A mission should be differentiating and “ownable” by your organization, making it easier for people to buy into your success and see why supporting your organization has a different impact than supporting others.
  5. A mission should be active in its language use, inspiring people to see how they can get involved and build momentum.

How to assess and revise your mission

Since creating a single statement to do all of the above is difficult, we’ve also developed some guiding questions to uncover ideas that will help get your organization closer. The main thing we want a mission statement to answer is “How is your organization creating a better world?” We start to answer that by completing the following prompts:

  • In one to two sentences, what does your organization do?
  • How does your organization do it? What’s your unique approach?
  • Why does the work you’re doing matter?
  • To whom does your work matter the most?

Begin to craft your mission statement using the ideas and language that rise to the top after answering the above questions. Then edit your statement. And edit it again. Can you make it shorter? Are certain qualifying or “bounding” words (e.g., geography) necessary? Is there a simpler or clearer term you can use when describing your approach? What can you do to make it more “you” and distinctly tied to your organization?

Real-world applications

Even when keeping in mind the characteristics and prompts we’ve identified, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to mission statements. Below we’ve highlighted different ways the aforementioned guides have been brought to life.

We had the opportunity to work with an organization called Change Machine, a social enterprise and financial coaching platform for social service organizations and public agencies, on developing their overarching mission statement.

We build financial security for low-income communities through people-powered technology. Our products and partnerships amplify the impact of social service organizations and public agencies, and generate insights to shape lasting economic change.

Using their brand strategy as a guide and leaning into the answers from the assessment prompts, we landed on the above statement to play up who they work with (social service organizations and public agency partners), who they impact (low-income communities), and how they do it (people-powered technology and products geared toward building financial security and economic impact). If you’re curious, you can read about the rest of our rebranding work with Change Machine in our case study here.

We also helped the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal and educational organization using the law as a positive force for social change, refine their mission statement.

Center for Constitutional Rights stands with social justice movements and communities under threat—fusing litigation, advocacy, and narrative shifting to dismantle systems of oppression regardless of the risk.

This mission is kept to a single line, yet it still specifies what they do (litigation, advocacy, narrative shifting) without getting into the nitty gritty. You’re also able to get a great feel for the organization and its values through the clear and emphatic language (stands with, fusing, shifting to dismantle, regardless of the risk). You can read more about our work with the Center for Constitutional Rights in our case study here.

Another organization with an effective mission (that Big Duck didn’t work with) is Cradles to Crayons, a family services nonprofit that provides clothing, shoes, books, and more for kids without access.

To provide children from birth through age 12 with the everyday essentials they need to thrive — at home, at school, and at play.

We appreciate how this mission provides audiences a clear picture through its specificity—who they impact (children from birth through age 12) and what they provide (everyday essentials for home, school, and play).

While your mission statement is a foundational message for your organization that many other messages are built around, it’s important to periodically take a fresh look at it to ensure it still resonates and accurately projects the right ideas out into the world. Ask yourself the assessment prompts every three to five years and see if the answers still match up in a way that’s motivating. Or turn a critical eye on the language and put pressure on the clarity. A clear and powerful mission statement can go a long way toward your organization’s success.

Ryan Gerhardt

Ryan Gerhardt is the Copy Director, Worker-Owner at Big Duck

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