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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. They are the organization's introduction or branding statement to people, potential donors, other organizations, and even taxing bodies like the IRS. It states the organization's purpose, who it serves, and how it operates to accomplish its mission—all in a few words.

Every nonprofit (actually, every business) needs a mission statement. But a poorly written nonprofit mission statement may do more harm than good. This brief overview will discuss a mission statement, what it should accomplish, and how to write that great one that everyone talks about.

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What a Mission Statement Should Accomplish

A genuinely excellent mission statement should spotlight a current problem and give the organization's means to correct or cure that problem. It should be both short and informative, concise, and deep. It should pull the reader into wanting to know more about the organization and motivate the nonprofit members.

The language should be jargon-free, easy to repeat, and proactive in tone. And it should be updated regularly to keep up with the times.

Here are a few examples of concise, highly regarded mission statements:

  • Oceana: “Protecting and restoring the world's oceans."
  • Khan Academy: “To provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere."
  • ASPCA: “To provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States."
  • Cleveland Clinic: “Caring for life, researching for health, educating those who serve."

A mission statement can also be longer and more detailed. One example of that is:

“The mission of Big Brothers/ Big Sisters of America is to make a positive difference in the lives of children and youth, primarily through a professionally-supported, one-to-one relationship with a caring adult, and to assist them in achieving their highest potential as they grow to become confident, competent and caring individuals, by providing committed volunteers, national leadership and standards of excellence."

People generally don't have time to read involved mission statements in today's quick world, and the trend is toward shorter statements. You need to grab eyeballs within five seconds of the reader hitting your web page.

IRS Assessment

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) takes the mission statements of nonprofit organizations applying for tax-exempt status seriously. The IRS scores nonprofits for their "charitable purpose" and uses the mission statement to indicate that purpose.

Nonprofit Vision Statement vs. Mission Statement

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

However, they accomplish two different tasks. Simply put, the nonprofit vision statement encapsulates your organization's overall goal, while the mission statement encapsulates how the organization will get to that goal. The vision statement is aspirational; the mission statement is pragmatic.

However, many mission statements incorporate the vision statement or list both in literature and on the website.

Your organization will need to create a vision statement before it creates the mission statement.

How to Create a Strong Mission Statement

Creating an effective, well-crafted mission statement should take the time and resources of all the creative minds in your organization. The process should consider every stakeholder who wants to be involved, and therefore may take some time to get it right. That is all right. As the core statement of your organization, it is essential to take all the time necessary to make the mission statement as clear and precise as possible.

The creative process should be set up to answer a set of questions. by the mission statement team. After those answers have been reduced to writing, the writers can get to work crafting the perfect mission statement for the target audience's consumption.

The stakeholders will need to answer the following questions:

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

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. Don't do any editing yet.

Once the responses are formulated, 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.

After this initial gathering feedback process, one or two people should write the mission statement draft. Take your time doing this.

The final product should be a statement in three sentences or less that will:

  • Connect with the public.
  • Inspire and motivate members of the organization.
  • Be both convincing and easy to understand.
  • Be in active voice with proactive verbs.
  • Use specific and plain language.
  • Be without buzzwords, formal language, or jargon.
  • Be written at a high school reading level, or to a specific target readership level in concrete language.
  • Be short enough that anyone answering the organization's phone can repeat it.

Then pass it around to the group again. At some point, it will be evident that the process has run its course, and you'll be done and ready to post it everywhere.

Here is an analysis of the metrics of 50 nonprofit mission statement examples. All of the mission statements are short, but some still grade very low because they are written above the average reader's level.

Remember, the creative process has its own schedule. Take your time to get this right. A well-crafted mission statement will be worth all the time and effort!

Consult an Attorney When Necessary

As with any published text, you also must ensure that all the legal language is in order. Once you have crafted your mission statement, have an experienced business organization attorney look it over. Remember that the IRS will factor in your mission statement to determine tax-exempt status. Having an attorney double-check your statement can save you a lot of time and effort.

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