A nonprofit organization’s mission statement should be its principal case for support—the main reason why anybody should ever consider donating to the organization. Every other statement a nonprofit makes about its good works past, present, or future should derive from the content of a well crafted mission statement.

A mission statement should be clear, concise, and active. It should literally trip off the tongue. The gist of it should be easily remembered. Think of it as your elevator pitch—what you want someone to know about your organization when you have 20 seconds or less to tell them (the time it takes for an elevator ride). That elevator ride may be the only chance you ever get to pitch your organization to a prospective donor. Make it count.

A prospect who hears an organization’s mission statement should walk away with an absolute understanding of the primary purpose of that organization—the part of its identity it will never give up.

There are those who will argue that fundraisers don’t need to worry about the mission statement. They’ll suggest that the fundraising story can be told successfully irrespective of the mission statement.  Don’t believe it. A mission statement is rooted in an organization’s founding and permeates its existence. It should be the first and best argument for support.

Clear, Concise, and Active

The absence of a clear, concise, active statement of mission hampers fundraising efforts. An organization cannot have clarity in fundraising if its statement of mission is murky or fails the test of user friendliness.

  • A clear mission statement is easily understood. It is written in common, everyday language. It doesn’t need to be interpreted.
  • A concise mission statement is short. It doesn’t need to be reread to sort its content. A great mission statement will almost invariably be less than 30 words.
  • An active mission statement does not read like an apology or explanation. It is a clarion call to action.

A mission statement is about the why of an organization, not the what or how of it. It is the organization’s statement of purpose, and that makes it the first recognition point of brand. It is the foundation of everything the organization takes into any marketplace. In the fundraising marketplace it may not be the end-all, but it had better be the be-all.

I’ve worked for a number of nonprofit organizations. One of those organizations has the best mission statement I’ve ever seen. It’s 18 words long and describes completely the purpose of that organization. If you have an ounce of compassion, it makes you open to the argument for fulfilling that mission.

Another organization for which I worked has one of the worst mission statements I’ve ever seen. It is long—134 words long. Try remembering that many words and spitting them out in under a minute. But it’s what those words do that makes them a meaningless, self-serving jumble of platitudes. They tell of the founding of the organization more than 100 years ago, praise its high mindedness, note how respected and admired it is, and congratulate it on its accomplishments. But wait, there’s more. The absolute topper that puts it is a class by itself is that it includes a footnote—so much for user friendly. I could go on about th0se two mission statements, but you read them and form your own opinion.

The Cleveland Museum of Art

The mission of the Cleveland Museum of Art is to fulfill its dual roles as one of the world’s most distinguished comprehensive art museums and one of northeastern Ohio’s principal civic and cultural institutions. The museum, established in 1913 “for the benefit of all the people forever,”1 seeks to bring the pleasure and meaning of art to the broadest possible audience in accordance with the highest aesthetic, intellectual, and professional standards. Toward this end the museum augments, preserves, exhibits, and fosters understanding of the outstanding collections of world art it holds in trust for the public and presents complementary exhibitions and programs. The Cleveland Museum of Art embraces its leadership role in collecting, scholarship, education, and community service.

  1. J. H. Wade II, act of conveyance of land to be used for the CMA

Heifer International

Heifer International’s mission is to work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth.

This statement doesn’t talk about how Heifer started by delivering milk to children in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. It doesn’t tell us about its remarkable successes. It just clearly and concisely states the goal of its efforts. No self congratulatory pats on the back for its awards and the lives it has changed. It’s a statement designed to open minds not to fill them.

The How-To

So how do you go about crafting a mission statement that really works? You start by refusing to do anything else. Then you commit to a process that begins with asking your organization’s closest constituencies what they believe its mission is. Basically these constituencies can be grouped into five categories:

  • Employees
  • Leadership
  • Volunteers
  • Donors
  • Beneficiaries

You’re not asking people what the organization’s mission statement is or should be. You are asking them to describe, based on their experience, what they see as the organization’s mission. It’s a good idea to put a word limit on responses. I like the idea of 30 words. Then sit back and prepare to be surprised.

When you’ve collected all the responses, you turn them over to a drafting committee. That committee should consist of the CEO, board chair, and the person or persons charged with responsibility for development, marketing, and communications. Add to this mix the person within the organization who is the best writer/editor. If there’s no internal writer/editor with sufficient skill, reach out to your volunteer community.

You’re not looking for an academic or novelist here. The skill set you seek is the ability to write strong advertising copy and press materials. Even if there is a good internal writer/editor, adding an outside pro with experience in taking an entity to market is a good idea. The role of principal drafter would then fall to the writer/editor in partnership with the marketing pro. This partnership would be responsible for producing a draft mission statement and responding to the full committee’s review. Give the writers a deadline and a parameter of 30 words or less.

When it comes to agreeing on a completed mission statement it is the responsibility of each committee member to measure the result against the standards of clear, concise, and active. Every single word must contribute to that goal. Any word that does not must go. A mission statement’s success is more likely to be determined by what is left out than what is put in. If need be, draft and redraft until you get it right. But don’t dispose of what you pull out. The culled words and thoughts can inform additional writing such as the organization’s vision and values statements.

One final point: while all committee members need to view the draft with a critical eye, no one will have more at stake than the person charged with managing the organization’s development efforts. That person’s voice should be strong, and it should be listened to.

In the End

I think of an organization’s mission statement as a necessary expression of its soul. As a prospective donor, it doesn’t tell me everything I want to know before I decide whether to support an organization. But it opens the doors of my mind. As a fundraiser, I find it to be the rock upon which I can build all my arguments for support. As a marketer, I find it to be a nonprofit’s core brand statement.

Read Heifer’s mission statement again: “To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth.” Who can deny the attractiveness and value of that mission? It makes me want to ask how, and doing that puts me into the kind of conversation that the fundraiser in me begs to be able to have with prospective donors.

Parsing the Heifer Mission Statement

Let’s take the Heifer Mission Statement apart to better see how it works and how it accomplishes so much with so few words. In this process we’ll look at its simple surface and at the elegant depths that lie beneath. We begin by breaking it down into five components.

To work with / communities / to end hunger / and poverty / and care for the Earth.

  • To work with: Heifer wants to collaborate. Collaboration is highly prized as a trait in individuals and organizations. Those three words speak of humility, openness, and understanding of the value of others.
  • Communities: Heifer is going to perform its good works at the ground level. That’s where a donor’s money is going to be used. Heifer is going to work within the existing societal-cultural structures. It is not going to try to reinvent the wheel. Working with communities speaks to fostering cooperative efforts among those who will benefit from Heifer’s actions. It implies internal empowerment rather than external control.
  • To end hunger: Heifer has a clear purpose. That’s what it’s about—ending hunger. What it’s not about is providing emergency relief. It’s about permanent change—ending Heifer isn’t about giving a person a fish; it’s about teaching people to fish.
  • And poverty: Poverty is linked to hunger as its underlying cause. Ending poverty is a big part of how Heifer is going to end hunger.
  • And care for the Earth: This phrase is loaded with content. It speaks to the concept of interconnectedness. It identifies Heifer as an organization committed to environmental protection making it even more attractive to a large segment of prospective donors. Capital “E” Earth calls attention to the commonality of all humanity; there is one Earth, and we all share it.

Heifer accomplishes an amazing amount of communication with its mission statement. In 14 words containing only 60 letters—fewer letters than most mission statements have words—it clearly, concisely, and actively reveals its raison d’être.

“To work with communities to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth,” has a surface that conveys the reason why Heifer exists and why people should give to it. And the words, both individually and in their ordered combination, show the underlying depths of the organization’s vision and values. The result is a perfect encapsulation of the key reasons to support Heifer.