Board Leadership: Our Mission is our Promise

January 6, 2016


Once each semester, I assign students in La Salle’s Masters in Nonprofit Leadership program, as well as the MBA students in my Nonprofit Management class, the task of evaluating the “goodness” of the mission statements of three nonprofits of their choice.


I then have to read 60 to 120 mission statements. Without a doubt, it is the worst week of every semester. Instead of feeling inspired and awed by statements alluding to doing good, I am depressed and sickened by nonprofits’ lack of understanding of the importance and value of their mission statements.

Why is a mission statement even necessary? There are many, many successful for-profits that have operated for decades, if not centuries, without a mission statement. (Interestingly, though, more and more of these very same for-profits are adopting mission statements). So, can’t nonprofits be successful without a mission statement?

The answer, quite simply, is no! They can survive with a bad mission statement; but they will not consistently thrive. Why is this? For-profits know what they are doing: they were formed to make products or provide services. The “what” that needs to happen to achieve the end goal of making money is pretty clear: make new car models so folks will want to buy them until the next iteration of personal transport systems comes into being. It is the quality of the product, the price points and the reputation of the company that keeps people buying the product or preferring a competitor.

Sadly, this simplistic clarity is totally lacking in the nonprofit sector. First, while each and every nonprofit does need to make a profit year after year if it wants to be sustainable for the long haul, that is not the motivation and raison d’etre. But it is a very important part of the equation. So yes, we, too, need to have good price points. (And this need to make a profit confuses many, both those internal to the nonprofit sector and those outside.)

Second, what we “make” is too often imperceptible (improving self-confidence, reducing poverty, saving the environment) or questionable in duration (feeding the homeless, attending a performance) or of debatable value/necessity (closing the hole in the ozone layer, resettling immigrants, sharing multiculturalism). Third, it comes with no warranties, or the ability to return it, if dissatisfied with the product.

The nonprofit sector’s transactions are built on a different model, one that I would argue should be implied in that of the for-profit world, but one that is the whole enchilada in the nonprofit sector: a promise. Our mission statement is that promise.

As that promise, a mission statement must do several things.

  1. Speak to all audiences in one tongue. Yes, a nonprofit only gets one mission statement and not, contrary to what I hear too often, one for funders, one for the website, etc. One! As such, it must convey the same message to all audiences, from donors to clients to staff to board members.
  2. Set expectations. What exactly is the content of this promise? What should anyone expect from the organization that boasts this mission statement? What are the parameters of this mission?
  3. Be the compass and guide. A strong mission statement is the compass for guiding all decision making—for board, executive and staff. If a decision is made without having asked and answered the question, “how will going in direction X impact the organization’s ability to deliver on its mission promises?” then a key purpose of a mission has been violated. If the mission isn’t present when decisions are being made—from the small to the big, by board and by staff —then it has no value to the organization.
  4. Inspire. A good mission statement draws the audience in, inspiring them to want to learn more about the organization, to ask questions, drill down on the website, etc.

Writing a mission statement is tricky. The above four items aren’t optional; they are all or nothing. The following are some common mistakes people make in writing a mission statement.

The Mission Statement:

  1. Doesn’t answer the key questions. A good mission statement needs to answer, in some way, three key questions: What is the difference or impact that the organization is working to achieve? Alternatively asked, and the more powerful of the two framings, why does this organization need to exist? What are the general categories of means that the organization will use (i.e., performances, education, advocacy, training)? On whose behalf is the organization working?
  2. Utilizes a kitchen sink approach. Being all things to all people is not a good thing; it is a path to organizational demise. The mission is a compass for a reason: to allow an organization to determine what is and isn’t within its wheelhouse, what does/doesn’t play to its strengths, etc. A mission statement that is so broad that anything can go will not focus an organization. It chases everything and does nothing really well.
  3. Is filled with jargon. Given the multiple audiences to which a mission statement must communicate, using any language that can potentially exclude an audience from understanding the full message is always a bad thing. And while an organization should be reviewing its mission statement regularly, it shouldn’t be changing its mission regularly, replacing outdated lingo for current lingo only to subsequently be replaced with even later lingo.
  4. Is written as a marketing tool. Yes, or course, your mission statement is a marketing tool, but it should never be written as such. And do not bury it on your website. The most common complaint I get from students doing the assignment noted above is the difficulty finding the mission statement. If not on your home page, it belongs in the “About Us” tab. (Along with your core values and anything else you feel compelled to put there).
  5. Is missing the “Why.” Ninety-five percent of the time after reading each of the 60 to 120 mission statements during this horrendous week, I find myself asking the same question: why should I care? Why does the work you say you are doing matter to an individual? to your community? to society at large? The audience should never have to fill in the blanks; that is the job of the authors of the statement. It is the Why that inspires a person to move her/his figurative hand to her/his wallet, or that moves a person to complete the “Contact Us” page asking about the possibly of volunteering, or prompts someone to click on the “Employment Opportunities” tab. It is, to paraphrase Simon Sinek, the difference between a mission statement that says “I have a plan” and one that says “I have a dream.” (If you never have watched Sinek’s TedTalk, “How great leaders inspire action,” do so, and then share it with staff and board.)

But, of course, none of this matters if an organization isn’t going to use its mission statement, if it isn’t going to bring it into all of its discussions and decision-making. If the organization is just going to do what the executive director wants, or the board president or the founder, regardless of the mission, then write a tag line (which, yes, is very different from a mission statement) and call it a day.

If you realize the need for your brand to be clear and strong, then start with a clear and strong mission statement and it keep it alive, present and ready as you do your work. There are so many easy ways this can happen at the board level, ways that can take up no time or a little time, and cost little money, and none is mutually exclusive.

Here are a few:

  1. Print the mission statement on the top of the meeting agenda (although this only works if people actually bring—tangible or electronically—the agenda with them to the meeting) or on the opposite side of the table tent from the person’s name, so the mission is facing the person and the name facing out.
  2. Read the mission statement at the start of the board meeting as a way to remind everyone that this is the reason you have gathered together: to determine how best to push forward these mission promises.
  3. Begin each board meeting with a “mission moment” where a board member or two, briefly describes what s/he did since the last board meeting to push out the mission, e.g., talked to someone about the organization, suggested the organization’s resources to a potential consumer, invited someone to come witness the mission in action, made an introduction to a potential partner/sponsor/funder, etc.
  4. Invite a client to come (or be present via phone or skype, if less of a burden) and talk of her/his experience with the organization; engage in a little interactive conversation.
  5. At the start of every discussion where a decision is to be made, the board president reminds the group that the goal is to make the decision that best moves mission promises forward. Or, create a “mission minder” position and make the reminding that person’s responsibility.

A mission is the very core of what a nonprofit is. It is our promise to everyone—from staff to clients to board members to donors and the public. Our trust factor is made and broken by how well we deliver on those promises.

 Laura Otten is Executive Director at The Nonprofit Center at LaSalle University. She is also a faculty member of the Dodge Technical Assistance Initiative. Find out more about our nonprofit capacity building workshops here. Photo via Creative Commons