The Nonprofit FAQ

What should our mission statement say?
Ron Meshanko wrote in about "Mission Statements" on 29
Feb 1996 as follows:

I give board trainings all over the country and begin each session with
a quiz, the first question being, write your agency mission statement.
99% of the time, not one person - sometimes even the executive director-
can write down in clear, succinct language the mission statement of the

How can these people lobby on behalf of their organization? How can a
person who can't communicate the mission of the agency ask for a gift?

A Mission Statement should be a one-sentence, clear, concise statement
that says who the agency is (the name, that it is a nonprofit, and what
type of agency it is), what it does, for whom and where. Period.

Some will say, as I have read in this newsgroup, that the vision and
future of the agency has to be indicated. That would be great. But let's
get to the basics first. That is the bottom-line. Call it a PR statement
if you will, but have a simple, easy to remember and repeat statement
that your board members, staff and volunteers can effectively use to
lobby on behalf of your organization.

An example: "United Community Center is a 501(c)(3) human service agency
providing emergency assistance, daycare, social services and
recreational activities for low-income children and families at risk in
inner city Atlanta, Georgia".

Ron Meshanko
Ecumenical Resource Consultants, Inc.
PO Box 21385
Washington, DC 20009-0885
(202) 328-9517

Publishers of Fund Raising Made Simple: A Workbook for Small Nonprofits;
ERC Newsbriefs; The National Guide to Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and
Presbyterian Funding; and The National Guide to African American

The Support Center says:

In just a few sentences a mission statement needs to communicate the
essence of your organization to your stakeholders and to the public. For

At the Developmental Studies Center we develop, evaluate, and
disseminate programs that foster children's ethical, social, and
intellectual development. While nurturing children's capacity to think
skillfully and critically, we also strive to deepen children's
commitment to prosocial values such as kindness, helpfulness, personal
responsibility, and respect for others - qualities we believe are
essential to leading humane and productive lives in a democratic

Often, however, organizations want to say more about who they are, what
they are doing, and why they are doing it. Therefore, another example of
a mission statement format is illustrated by the mission statement
developed by the Forest Service. After a brief statement, the Forest
Service uses three pages to elaborate its mission, vision, and guiding
principles. Excerpts from the expanded statement include:

The phrase, "caring for the land and serving the people," captures the
Forest Service mission. As set forth in law, the mission is to achieve
quality land management under the sustainable multiple-use management
concept to meet the diverse needs of people.

It includes advocating a conservation ethic...

Vision: We are recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in
caring for the land and service people...

Guiding Principles: To realize our mission and vision, we follow 13
guiding principles ...

Neither approach is necessarily the "right" one for your organization.
What is important about your mission statement is that one guiding set
of ideas is articulated, understood and supported by the organization's
stakeholders, board, staff, volunteers, donors, clients, and

The Need for a Mission Statement

In Profiles of Excellence, the Independent Sector lists a clear, agreed
upon mission statement first among the four primary characteristics of
successful nonprofit organizations. Specifically, the four primary
characteristics include:

  • a clear, agreed-upon mission statement
  • a strong, competent executive director
  • a dynamic board of directors
  • an organization-wide commitment to fundraising.

The primary importance of the mission statement means that failure to
clearly state and communicate your organization's mission can have
harmful consequences, including:

  • organization members can waste time "barking up the wrong tree"
  • the organization may not think broadly enough about different
    possibilities if its mission statement is unclear or overly narrow
  • the organization may not realize when it is time to go out of business

Finally, the importance of mission statements is summarized quite
eloquently by Lewis Caroll through the words of the Cheshire Cat in
Alice in Wonderland, "If you don't know where you're going, it doesn't
matter which way you go." Indeed!

What Should Be in a Mission Statement?

The following concepts are critical in defining "who" your organization

The Purpose Statement

The purpose statement clearly states what your organization seeks to
accomplish: Why does your organization exist? What is the ultimate
result of your work?

Purpose statements usually include two phrases:

  • an infinitive that indicates a change in status, such as to increase, to
    decrease, to prevent, to eliminate
  • an identification of the problem or condition to be changed.

An example of a purpose statement is "to eliminate homelessness."
In defining purpose, it is essential to focus on outcomes and results
rather than methods: How is the world going to be different? What is
going to change? Thus, the purpose of a mental health counseling agency
would never be simply "to provide counseling services," for that is
describing a method rather than a result. Rather, the purpose might be
"to improve the quality of life" for its clients.

The Business Statement

This statement outlines the "business(es)" (i.e., activities or
programs) your organization chooses in order to pursue its purpose.
Specifically, you must answer, "What activity are we going to do to
accomplish our purpose?" For example, there are many ways to work on the
problem of homelessness:

  • to construct housing for homeless individuals
  • to educate the public and advocate for public policy changes
  • to provide job training to homeless individuals.

Each of these are different businesses, but they may be different means
of achieving the same purpose.

Business statements often include the verb "to provide" or link a
purpose statement with the words "by" or "through." For example: "To
eliminate homelessness by providing job training to homeless

A cautionary note: If the word "and" is in your purpose or business
statement, ask yourselves, "Are we really committed to both ideas
connected by the word" and, "or have we simply not been able to accept
that one idea is more important?"


Values are beliefs which your organization's members hold in common and
endeavor to put into practice. The values guide your organization's
members in performing their work. Specifically, you should ask, "What
are the basic beliefs that we share as an organization?"

Examples of values include: a commitment to excellent services,
innovation, diversity, creativity, honesty, integrity, and so on. Values
may include beliefs such as: "Eating vegetables is more economically
efficient and ecologically responsible than eating beef." (Vegetarian

Marvin Weisbord writes in Productive Workplaces that values come alive
only when people are involved in doing important tasks. Ideally, an
individual's personal values will align with the spoken and unspoken
values of the organization. By developing a written statement of the
values of the organization, group members have a chance to contribute to
the articulation of these values, as well as to evaluate how well their
personal values and motivation match those of the organization.

The example of a mission statement cited at the beginning of this
response sheet includes all three elements of what should be included in
a mission statement. To review:

At the Developmental Studies Center we develop, evaluate, and
disseminate programs [business] that foster children's ethical, social,
and intellectual development [purpose]. While nurturing children's
capacity to think skillfully and critically, we also strive to deepen
children's commitment to prosocial values such as kindness, helpfulness,
personal responsibility, and respect for others - qualities we believe
are essential to leading humane and productive lives in a democratic
society [values].

Below is another example of a mission statement which includes all three

The YMCA of San Francisco, based in Judeo-Christian heritage [values],
seeks to enhance the lives of all people [purpose] through programs
designed to develop spirit, mind and body [business].

In addition to the three elements discussed above, you may want to
address the following questions in developing your organization's
mission statement:

  • What is the problem or need your organization is trying to address?
  • What makes your organization unique?
  • Who are the beneficiaries of your work?

Clearly, the answers to the these questions could be included in the
mission statement or added as elaboration of the mission statement.
How To Write a Mission Statement

There is no formula for finding the wording that best expresses the
collective intention of your organization. It can be drafted by one
person alone or after input gathered at leadership retreat. The most
important issue is that there is consensus on the answers to the
questions used in developing the mission statement.

One approach is to use time at a board retreat to discuss these
questions and find out where the areas of consensus are and where there
are differences. There is a "process" benefit to hashing over an
organization's mission statement as well. In the course of discussion
and debate, new members are introduced to nuances of an organization's
mission and changes in the environment, and old members refresh their
understanding of both. As a result, the group will have confidence that
the mission statement which emerges (whether it is a new statement or a
rededication to the old mission statement) is genuinely an articulation
of commonly held ideas.

Groups are good at many things, but one of them is not writing. Have
group discussions about big ideas and concepts and then let one or two
individuals draft and redraft the wording before submitting a reworked
version for the group to respond to. It is important to circulate the
draft mission statement a few times to board, staff, and other
stakeholders. Some consultants advise organizations to also seek an
outside opinion from someone unfamiliar with the organization to see how
easily the mission statement can be understood.

Mix with passion, humanity and an eye on the big picture, and keep
refining the mission statement until you have a version that people can
actively support.

Copyright ©1994-95 Support Center, 706 Mission Street, 5th Floor,
Francisco, CA, USA 94103-3113. 415-974-5100. Distribution and reprinting
permitted as long as this copyright notice is included. All Rights