6 Tips for Writing a Nonprofit Mission Statement - dummies

6 Tips for Writing a Nonprofit Mission Statement

By Stan Hutton, Frances Phillips

You may be asking yourself, “Does my nonprofit need a mission statement?” Some nonprofits do function without a mission statement, but writing one will give your nonprofit motivation and focus to succeed with your goals.

Clarify your purpose

When thinking of your organization’s purpose, think of your desired end result. What would you like to see happen? What would the world be like if your organization were to succeed? Clarifying the purpose is basic to a mission statement.

For example, you may know that you love cats and dogs and have always wanted to work with them, but that isn’t the same thing as identifying a nonprofit organization’s purpose. For example, a mission statement for a fictitious humane society might be: The mission of Friends of Animals is to provide temporary shelter for homeless puppies, dogs, kittens, and cats until responsible, loving homes can be found.

This sentence doesn’t describe the humane society’s facilities or how it recruits and trains volunteers, but it does clearly state which animals it serves and that it doesn’t intend to foster them as long as they live but rather to place them in good homes. And if someone came to Friends of Animals with a ferret, or a pony, its staff would know to refer that person to another shelter.

Knowing and understanding your organization’s purpose is essential to making important organizational decisions. It’s also a fundamental tool to use when asking for money, recruiting board members, hiring and motivating staff, and publicizing your activities.

Zero in on your beneficiaries

If you’ve determined your purpose, you probably know the primary beneficiaries of your activities. Their needs — whether they’re kittens or refugees — make your mission compelling. Defining who will benefit from your nonprofit helps to focus your organizational activities and is an essential ingredient in your mission statement.

Some organizations have a more general audience than others. If your purpose is preserving historic buildings, the beneficiary of this activity may be current and future residents of a city, a county, or even a state. It may also be the workers you train in the crafts needed to complete the building restorations.

Describe how you accomplish your goals

After you know your organization’s purpose and its beneficiaries, the next step is deciding how you’re going to make it happen. Mission statements usually include a phrase describing the methods your organization will use to accomplish its purpose. Think about the activities and programs you’ll provide to achieve your goal. Take a look at these examples:

  • To indicate how it will accomplish its goals, the Friends of Animals’ mission may say, “This is accomplished by a dedicated staff of employees, volunteers, and board members.”

  • The mission of a national wildlife preservation organization, such as the fictitious Wildlife Preservation League, may state that its mission is to conserve and rebuild natural ecosystems, focusing on small mammals, other wildlife, and their habitats, for the benefit of future generations and the planet’s biological diversity.

    How will the league accomplish its mission? The statement can explain that its national network of community-based nature advocates, educational programs, and advocacy projects on behalf of areas that sustain small mammal populations engage thousands of people of all ages in positive environmental experiences.

When describing how your organization addresses its purpose, you don’t want to be so specific that you have to rewrite your mission statement every time you add a new program. At the same time, you want your mission statement to be concrete enough that people reading it (or hearing you recite it) can picture what your organization does.

Vision statements

Simply put, a vision statement is your dream — your broadly described aspiration for what your organization can become. Vision statements can describe a future desired condition as a result of the organization’s activities, but they’re more typically applied to the organization itself. Usually, the statement includes phrases like “the best” or “recognized as a leader.”

Here’s an example of a vision statement from a fictitious agricultural policy think tank:

The Agricultural Economics Institute will encourage excellence in its staff by providing opportunities for collaboration and professional development. The Institute’s research projects and position statements on agricultural matters will be widely reported in the media and referred to in the setting of state and national agriculture policy.

Some nonprofits include their vision statements in their mission statements, and others don’t. Don’t spend an excessive amount of time shaping your vision statement. Focusing on a clear purpose and concrete means for addressing it is more important.

Keep your focus narrow at first and broadening over time

The narrower your mission statement, the easier it is to convey your organization’s purpose and activities and to focus your attention and resources on achieving success. If you start out with a mission to benefit every man and woman on Earth, you’re likely to frustrate yourself and your board. In this situation, you’d likely be trying to work at a scale that far exceeds your organization’s resources.

Keep in mind, though, that you can always change your mission statement. As your organization achieves initial success and you determine that it’s time to expand, you may want to review — and possibly broaden — your mission as a part of your organizational planning process.

Keep your statement short and sweet

In keeping with the notion that a good mission statement is easily expressed, consider a short, pithy statement over a long, rambling one.

We understand, however, that some organizations want to describe their aims and activities more fully than what can be captured in one or two short sentences. For those organizations, begin your mission statement with a short summary that states simply what your nonprofit hopes to accomplish, how it plans to do it, and for whom.

You can print this succinct version on brochures or use it as an introductory statement on your website. Then you can prepare your longer statement, which includes all your organization’s programs.