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How To Write a Mission Statement for a Nonprofit

Woman writing in notebook

Nonprofit mission statements capture and communicate an organization's fundamental and unique reason for existence. It states the nonprofit's purpose, who it serves, and how it operates to accomplish its mission—all in a few words.

Think of your mission statement as your organization's introduction or branding statement. It's central to your nonprofit's identity and plays a key role in several aspects of your operations:

  • Fundraising and support—Potential donors and volunteers will look to your mission statement to understand your organization's purpose and impact.
  • Tax exemption status—The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) evaluates your mission statement as part of the tax exemption approval process.
  • Strategic planning—Your mission statement should be the foundation of your decision-making. It anchors your organization to its core purpose as situations and circumstances change.

All nonprofit (and for-profit) organizations need a mission statement. It's also an essential part of your business plan.

But a poorly written nonprofit mission statement may do more harm than good.

The overview below will help you understand a good mission statement. You'll learn what it should accomplish and how to write an impactful one your donors, community, and stakeholders can't ignore.

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What a Mission Statement Should Accomplish

A great mission statement should spotlight a current problem and show how the organization means to address that problem. It should be clear, concise, and compelling. It should entice the reader to want to know more about the organization and motivate nonprofit board members.

The language should be jargon-free, easy to understand for all audiences, and proactive in tone. You should also review your mission statement periodically. Your statement should evolve as your nonprofit goals and initiatives evolve.

Here are a few concise and effective mission statement examples:

People generally need more time to read involved mission statements in today's fast-paced world. The trend favors shorter statements. You must catch a reader's attention and establish buy-in within seconds of the reader hitting your web page.

If your mission statement needs to be longer and more detailed, make sure it's still direct and to the point. Lead with the most powerful part of your mission. The longer your statement, the more likely it is the reader won't read it through the end.

The Three Parts of an Effective Mission Statement

The best nonprofit mission statements have three fundamental elements:

  • Cause: State the issue or problem. Who is experiencing it? Where?
  • Action: This is what your nonprofit does to support your cause. Be specific.
  • Impact: What positive outcome will occur because of your nonprofit's actions?

By using this simple framework, your mission statement will clearly communicate the underlying issue, the means you'll employ to address the issue, and the positive change that will result.

This structure creates a focused and compelling mission statement that's easy for the audience to grasp and remember.

IRS Assessment

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) takes the mission statements of nonprofits applying for tax-exempt status seriously. The IRS reviews the organization's mission statement as part of the application process to determine if it meets the criteria for tax-exempt status.

Your mission statement should make it easy for the IRS to understand your goals and initiatives. It should clearly demonstrate how your operations align with IRS guidelines for charitable tax-exempt organizations.

Nonprofit Vision Statement vs. Mission Statement

The mission and vision statements are integral to how your nonprofit organization looks to the world. They should also be central to how your nonprofit conducts itself internally.

Importantly, they accomplish two different tasks:

  • The nonprofit vision statement outlines your organization's overall goal.
  • The mission statement summarizes how the organization will reach that goal.

The vision statement is action-oriented and aspirational. The mission statement is goal-oriented and pragmatic.

Big Brothers Big Sisters of America models this well on their website:

  • Vision: "All youth achieve their full potential."
  • Mission: “Create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth."

Your organization must create a vision statement before it creates the mission statement. This is because your vision should inform your mission. Once your organization has a clear vision statement (goal), you can develop your mission statement (action and means) around how you will achieve that vision.

Many mission statements incorporate the vision statement or list both in literature and online.

Creating and Evaluating Your Mission Statement

The process of creating a well-crafted mission statement should involve every stakeholder who wants to contribute.

It may take some time (and several attempts) to get it right. As the core statement of your organization, it's essential to take all the time necessary to make the mission statement as clear and precise as possible.

Set up your initial creative process to answer three key questions:

  • What are the needs or opportunities that our organization addresses? This is the purpose of the nonprofit.
  • What do we do that addresses these needs? How do we manifest in the world? This is the business of the nonprofit.
  • What are our guiding principles, core values, and beliefs?

It helps to start with a brainstorm. Jot down a chart with separate sections for each of the three questions. The responses could be words, phrases, or full-blown statements or ideas. Write down anything and everything the group thinks of. Wait to do any editing.

While idea sharing, you'll likely notice central themes and priorities emerging. Then, guide the discussion to clarify and refine these themes. Allow team members to explore different angles until you achieve clear answers to the three questions above.

Once you have formulated some responses, pass the list around to your team for feedback. Ask them for their immediate, unfiltered, emotional reaction to the statement. Remember, the final product will be a brief statement designed to elicit a positive emotional response from a reader within five seconds or less.

Now, the writers can begin to craft the perfect mission statement for the target audience. The final product should be a statement in three sentences or less that:

  • Connects with the public
  • Inspires and empowers members of the organization
  • Is convincing and easy to understand
  • Uses active voice with proactive verbs
  • Is accessible, using specific and plain language
  • Is free of buzzwords, fluff, formal language, and jargon
  • Is written at a high school reading level or to a specific target readership level
  • Is short enough that anyone answering the organization's phone can repeat it
  • Flows well and is easily read aloud

Then, pass it around to the group again. At some point, it will be evident the process has run its course, and you'll have a finished product. You're ready to share your mission statement everywhere—your website, social media channels, marketing materials, and more.

Remember, the creative process has its own schedule. Take your time to get this right. A strong mission statement will be worth all the time and effort. You'll know when you've gotten it just right.

Consult an Attorney When Necessary

As with any small business, you should ensure the legal language is in order for any official documents you publish. Once you have crafted your mission statement, consider having an experienced business organization attorney look it over.

Remember that the IRS will factor in your mission statement to determine tax-exempt status. Having a nonprofit attorney double-check your statement can save you time and effort.

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