How to Write an Amazing Nonprofit Mission Statement

From Mundane to Memorable

Group of people brainstorming in an office.
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Mission statements have often been mind-numbing, suitable only for bureaucrats and to impress funders.

But your mission is part of your branding, just like your logo or website design. That's why it must be outstanding.

Nonprofits, today, often shorten their mission statements to a few, pithy words that work across communication channels. The best ones express the focused purpose of the charity and work well with branding, marketing, fundraising, and even your graphic design.

Some people say that mission statements are old fashioned. Don't believe it. Useful mission statements are more relevant than ever. An article from Ohio University refers to research that shows that Millennials especially are drawn to a strong mission.

The article states, "Young employees want to believe their work is making a difference, whether they are in the for-profit or nonprofit sector. Good mission statements place the organization in the wider social context, and show how the work of the organization contributes to making society a better place."

Today, donors, supporters, volunteers look for a  nonprofit's  mission statement.  Yours should be right up front on your website, in your annual report, and in your fundraising materials.

NASA knows the importance of a good mission statement. Although that agency calls it their "vision," they use it to communicate a laser-like focus: 

"We reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind."

Perhaps if you think of your mission statement as the rocket that blasts your organization to the moon and beyond, you'll be inspired to give it the respect it deserves. 

There is no one way to write a mission statement. Studying many examples should help you recognize what makes a good one. The best are highly readable and inspirational, but still answer the why, how, and for whom your charity exists.

The Benefits of a Compelling Mission Statement

  • It focuses your energy and clarifies your purpose.
    Writing a mission statement forces you to figure out precisely what your nonprofit does. You'll have to answer several questions. For instance, whom will you serve? Where are you doing your work? What specifically do you do and, maybe, even more important, what are the things you don't want to do? A narrow focus helps avoid mission creep.
  • It motivates board, staff, volunteers, and donors.
    A mission statement is not just for internal use or to submit to the IRS for tax-exempt status. It helps attract new people and more resources to your cause. Make your mission statement compelling as well as clear. It will be your best public relations tool.
  • It helps to get IRS approval as a tax-exempt organization.
    If you plan to apply for tax-exempt status501(c)(3), or some other IRS classification, the IRS will use your mission statement to determine if your organization matches its requirements.

6 Ways to Write a Mission Statement That Is Memorable, Not Boring

  1. Bring in many perspectives.
    Get lots of input from the community you plan to serve, as well as from your board, staff, and volunteers. Inclusion develops a broad base of support. You can get this input through meetings, surveys, or phone calls. Ask people what they think about the services you plan to offer.
  2. Allow enough time.
    Time spent now will pay off later. So don't rush the process. Reflect on the information you gather, write the first draft, and let everyone read it and suggest changes.
  3. Be open to new ideas.
    Opinions from lots of people are especially important for a charity's founders. You may have had tunnel vision while getting your organization set up, but now it is time to get a fresh perspective so you can avoid founder's syndrome. Stay open to different interpretations of what you should be doing and how to accomplish your goals. Use brainstorming techniques to encourage lots of ideas. You can winnow them down later.
  1. Write short and only what you need.
    The best mission statements are brief and state the obvious. Your statement's length and complexity depend on what your organization wants to do but keep it as short as possible.
  2. Get help from a professional writer.
    A well-written mission statement can be the foundation for your organization's marketing and branding program. Consequently, it should not be written just for managers and insiders. Get help writing a statement that appeals to a broad audience. For instance, a good writer can help you avoid jargon and stilted language. The goal should be a mission statement that you are proud to display and that everyone understands. 
  1. Review your mission statement frequently.
    The American Heart Association, for instance, reviews its mission statement every third year, but they change it only every few decades.  Cass Wheeler, a long-time CEO of the American Heart Association, says in his book, You've Gotta Have Heart, "The environment changes and the organization changes, so a periodic review is important to ensure that there is an alignment of purpose and reality."

5 Things to Avoid in a Mission Statement

  1. Jargon that only professionals in your field understand.
  2. Stilted, formal language.
  3. Passive voice (passive: "XYZ is an organization that helps women achieve independence"; active: "XYZ helps women achieve independence.")
  4. A focus on your organization, rather than the people it serves.
  5. Generalities, such as "saving the world" or "eradicating poverty."

Never cut corners when it comes to your mission. It is worth the time and attention you lavish on it. 

Writing a mission statement could be the toughest writing assignment you ever take on, but the result can provide the foundation for all of your communications.

A Hot Tip

Once you write your great mission statement, develop a tagline to go with it.  Taglines add a bit of oomph to your mission and can be used in a variety of ways.  The tagline should flow from your mission, but it can be changed easily for various campaigns or as your nonprofit grows.

For examples of terrific taglines and how they connect to their mission statements, see 12 Examples of Mission Statements and Taglines that Play Well Together.