How to Write the Best Nonprofit Mission Statement
When was the last time your nonprofit’s mission statement got a refresh? Unless it’s a spectacular mission statement, it may be time to revise it. And if you’re a new start-up nonprofit, this is an opportunity to put real thought into how to write a blazingly good nonprofit mission statement.
In this article, we’ll look at what a nonprofit mission statement is, how to write one, how to refine an existing mission statement, and some nonprofit mission statement examples. Let’s get after it!
What is a Nonprofit Mission Statement?
A nonprofit mission statement should be a clear, concise, and compelling description of:
- What your organization does
- How you do it
- Who or what you impact
Think of your nonprofit mission statement as a foundational public relations tool, encapsulating the heartbeat of your organization in an easy-to-digest phrase.
Your mission statement should be the basis of your elevator pitch, your branding, your storytelling, and more. Your mission statement will appear on your website, and undoubtedly be an important part of any grant proposal you may submit. A good nonprofit mission statement is essential to your fundraising success and your organization’s visibility.
Compelling nonprofit mission statements have several distinctive uses. They:
- Inspire and unite staff, board members, volunteers, and supporters
- Direct leadership in decision-making and strategic planning
- Are the basis for the nonprofit’s intended impact
- Set goals and identify successes
- Establish shared values
There’s no right or wrong method to writing a good nonprofit mission statement, but it should be inspirational, clear, compelling, and even T-shirt worthy.
Don’t confuse a mission statement with either a tagline or a vision statement. A mission statement is neither.
That said, your nonprofit should strongly consider creating a vision statement to stand alongside the mission statement. A vision statement essentially states the vision your nonprofit is working toward.
A tagline, on the other hand, is a catchy phrase. Think of Nike’s “Just Do It.” That’s a tagline everybody recognizes. A tagline is just another way to create an impression with your audience. Two good examples of effective nonprofit taglines: Give a hoot. Don't pollute (USDA Forest Service) or AIDS ends here (San Francisco AIDS Foundation.)
How Can I Write a Nonprofit Mission Statement? (5 Steps)
Writing a nonprofit mission statement isn’t easy, but it’s vital to your organization’s focus and success. Here are five steps to take as you begin to write your mission statement:
1. Focus on Who, How, and Why
As you start pondering how to write a mission statement, narrow your focus to the following points:
- Who do you serve?
- How do you do it?
- Why do you do it?
You may notice this is somewhat like the four W’s and an H technique good journalists use: Who/What/When/Why/How. This technique allows you to create a compelling story, which can then be used to develop a compelling nonprofit mission statement.
The scrutiny you put into this first step will help you begin to craft a great mission statement that helps people understand what you do, imbues your entire organization with purpose, and also helps prevent mission creep.
What’s mission creep? Mission creep isn’t all that unusual. It occurs when a nonprofit turns from its original purpose and expands its goals beyond the mission. Make no mistake: there’s a big difference between mission creep and strategic realignment or adjustments. Mission creep usually occurs because of an ill-thought decision, or during an organizational crisis.
2. Get Input
Some nonprofits like to create a task force, composed of some board members, some staff, some volunteers, and even a few donors. If you’re good at facilitating group meetings, this could be a great time to have a no-holds-barred brainstorming session with everyone in the same room.
Definitely engage your board in the process. Remember: the board owns your mission and will be the final say in terms of approval, so get them involved from the outset. Bring in interested staff, perhaps a few devoted major donors, and other trusted advisors.
We’re not suggesting the dreaded “editing by committee” approach, but rather hearing from people you trust and who deeply know your organization about their reactions and inputs. This is an invaluable step, because it allows you to get out of your own head and gain valuable insights from others.
Once you narrow the mission statement down to a couple or three choices, ask your board for the OK to create a survey instrument to do some A/B testing with your closest insiders. Compiling that data will help provide even more direction and generate external reactions.
3. Edit Relentlessly
The least effective mission statements are vague and natter on with more than 20 words.
When it comes to strong nonprofit mission statements, less is more and clarity is key. Can you whittle it down to 10 or 15 words? Are you using formal and complicated language? Short, succinct nonprofit mission statements are often the most successful.
During the editing process, remove useless words and improve action verbs. Make sure the mission statement nails your organization’s core values. Here are some good examples of words to use when describing core values:
- Compassion or compassionate
- Innovation or Innovative
Did you know most nonprofit mission statements use the same tired verbs? Verbs like improve, hope, generate, give, and invest. Here’s a table featuring less common verbs you can use instead:
4. Don’t Rush
Take the time you need. Don’t just accept the first thing you slap down on paper or on your computer. Reflect. Mull it over. In other words, sleep on it.
When you think you’re on to something good, once again ask your stakeholders or task force for their reaction.
5. Leverage Professional Writers
Undoubtedly you have at least one colleague with grant writing or other writing expertise. Or, you might have a contract or consultant with that kind of experience. Consider bringing them in to tighten and refine your nearly final nonprofit mission statement.
How to Improve an Existing Nonprofit Mission Statement
Perhaps your nonprofit has an existing mission statement, but you feel it’s too vague, or too long, or not emotionally compelling. Here are some tips to help tune up a nonprofit mission statement:
Remove Buzzwords, Jargon, or Fluff
In the nonprofit world, we are adrift in buzzwords and jargon. Think of some of these examples:
- Capacity building
- Thought leader
- Cutting edge
- Donor (really!)
So if you identify any jargon in your existing nonprofit mission statement, change it out with a new, more descriptive word.
Swap Out Passive Voice with Active Voice
Using active voice in your mission statement can help make it much more compelling sounding.
If your current mission statement sounds something like this: “At XYZ, low-income families are helped by the organization to achieve economic independence", compare it with the active voice: "XYZ helps families achieve economic independence."
The active voice makes the statement shorter, punchier, and more concise.
Use the Flesch Reading Ease Tool
Using the Flesch Reading Ease tool can help you make sure your mission statement is easy to understand and clear.
If you use Microsoft Word, navigate to Editor, and then to Insights. When the Insights pop-up opens, you’ll see a Flesch calculation. The higher it is, the better—and you’ll see the grade level it correlates with. Try to keep your mission statement at grade 8 or below.
Free tip: The tool will also tell you if your mission statement is in the passive voice.
Just as when building a mission statement from scratch, retooling an existing nonprofit mission statement should involve input from some board members, some other supporters, and some staff members.
Sending out a survey is a way to engage in limited two-way interaction, and it’s certainly easier than facilitating focus groups. Pick your stakeholders carefully—you want to be sure to exclude someone who could derail or sidetrack the process.
Ask: Who Does the Mission Statement Focus On?
Unfortunately, focusing more on the organization, rather than the people served, is a fairly common issue. This is especially true if the mission statement has been developed by the marketing team without input from others.
Spend some time reflecting on the angle of your mission statement and make sure it is outward-facing.
4 Examples of Good Nonprofit Mission Statements
Here are four examples of some of the best nonprofit mission statements that are both effective and compelling:
The National Christian Foundation encourages generous giving by managing donor advised funds for their clients, as well as working with financial advisors. Here’s their mission statement:
“Mobilizing resources by inspiring biblical generosity.”
Why is this a good mission statement? It’s only six words long. It’s clear and to the point. It speaks to both potential donors, as well as charities and financial advisors—all their target market.
The Trevor Project works to prevent suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth.
It offers a suite of 24/7 crisis intervention and suicide prevention programs, including TrevorLifeline, TrevorText, and TrevorChat as well as the world’s largest safe space social networking site for LGBTQ youth, TrevorSpace. The Trevor Project also conducts robust advocacy as well as a research program. Its mission statement:
“To end suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning young people.”
Why is this a good example of a nonprofit mission statement? It’s very stark and clear. Their mission is to end youth suicide in a very high-risk group.
They do so by providing free counseling and crisis intervention. They advocate for pro-LGBTQ+ legislation. They conduct research gathering data about the prevalence of suicide amongst gender non-conforming youth. They do a lot of things, but the bottom line is to end suicide, as stated in the mission statement.
UNICEF USA is the American fundraising arm for the United Nations Children’s Fund. They raise millions of dollars each year to help children in some of the world’s most war-torn and poor countries. Here’s their mission statement:
“Helping every child thrive, all over the world.”
This is a good mission statement because, like the two examples above, it minces no words (8 to be exact!) and describes exactly what the organization does and where.
Yes, UNICEF provides food, clean water services, medical care, advocacy for children and their mothers, and prevents sex trafficking. A mission statement doesn’t need to state everything an organization does, but rather, its overarching lodestar.
ALDF files lawsuits to protect animals from harm, provides free legal assistance and training to prosecutors fighting against animal cruelty, supports animal protection legislation, and provides resources and opportunities to law students and legal professionals to advance the field of animal law. Their mission statement:
“To protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.”
ALDF’s mission statement is also a winner because it states exactly what the organization does: it uses the legal system to protect animals through a variety of means.
So, what do these four excellent mission statements share in common? Plenty. Each is direct, no-nonsense, clear, and succinct. Each states exactly what the organization does and for whom. Each is at or under 15 words. Each uses only one sentence. These are effective nonprofit mission statements to emulate.
Compare these to a sub-par nonprofit mission statement like this:
XYZ Nonprofit’s mission is “to support artists with the tools to make a living and a life, and to build just and equitable communities full of meaning, joy, and connection.”
(This is an actual nonprofit mission statement that’s been anonymized.)
What’s missing here? What do they do, and where do they do it?. How do they do it? Who do they serve? You have to dig down further on their website to learn where they operate, and even then, searching the site, you’ll be hard-pressed to determine exactly what it is they do.
Vagueness is not your friend, whether you’re writing content for a website or a good nonprofit mission statement.
Wrapping Up: Writing Effective Nonprofit Mission Statements
So, how does a nonprofit create an effective mission statement? First, by being clear on why the organization exists, who it serves, and where it provides its services. A good mission statement is one of the linchpins of a nonprofit, providing clear direction of organizational goals and the reason the nonprofit exists.
Getting input from your board, staff, and other trusted advisors is vital in crafting a new or retooled mission statement. Avoiding vague descriptions and jargon, using active voice, and pondering interesting verbs help make a mission statement more successful.
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