A nonprofit’s mission statement is an expression of its core values and purpose. In just a few short sentences, your audience should be able to tell what you do, how you do it, and why.
Why Do You Need A Mission Statement?
Having a mission statement defines your purpose for your team and for those who might want to support you. It communicates why you exist, what you do, how you do it, and what value you provide to the individuals/groups you are serving.
Similar to a tagline in advertising, a good mission statement sticks with you when you hear it. It’s short, to the point, and memorable.
A mission statement also defines what your nonprofit IS NOT by setting important boundaries. You can’t do everything, so when considering new initiatives, your mission statement will act as a framework for you and your team to work from, and also a compass to set you back on track if your priorities get off-course.
At the heart of it, your mission statement reflects your organization’s core values (more on these later). If done well, a clear, concise mission statement is an inspirational gold mine. Your people want to believe in the work they do, and with a good mission statement they’ll be able to understand, remember, and own it.
4 Questions To Answer Before You Write Your Mission Statement
1. What does your nonprofit do?
Simply, what practical services does your nonprofit provide? Do you provide solutions to immediate needs, such as hunger and homelessness, or does your organization give people strong foundations, through education and career readiness? Or is your primary focus to raise awareness of an issue?
2. Who does your nonprofit serve?
Think holistically when considering your audience. Your mission statement should reflect everyone in your nonprofit. Along with potential donors and supporters, your mission statement should be an inspirational tool for your employees, partners, and board members. A good mission statement shows that your nonprofit cares about the needs of all involved.
3. How does your nonprofit accomplish this? OR What are your core values?
Core values are the essential, unchanging values that drive your organization. They represent what you stand for as a nonprofit and also guide your decisions into the future. Some examples of core values:
Once you’ve landed on your core values, take the time with your team to flesh these out and see how they impact each part of how your nonprofit operates, from external operations to organizational culture. The key is balancing realism (what you practically do) with optimism (what you aim to do). Take Patagonia’s mission statement for example:
“To build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
Both practical and aspirational, the company links what it does (make clothing) with its core values (saving the planet). This reminds Patagonia’s audience that the company is about more than just clothing, and inspires employees that their work at the company makes a difference.
4. What unique value does your nonprofit offer?
What is that “winning idea” your nonprofit has that makes you stand out from others? Why should donors support your organization over the competition? This is your nonprofit’s strategy – the thing that makes you unique and marketable to donors, gives you a competitive advantage, and ultimately attracts donations.
Important Guidelines To Follow When Writing Your Mission Statement
You’ve answered those 4 fundamental questions about your nonprofit and you’ve laid out your core values. Now you’re ready to start crafting your mission statement! As you do so, let the following guidelines keep you on track.
- Make it Personal. Your mission statement won’t matter to anyone else unless it matters to you first. Do you have any stories from your life that might inform the way the culture of your nonprofit operates? Consider journaling these out so you can draw from them when you write your mission statement.
- Keep it simple. Avoid using fancy-sounding words. A good rule of thumb is to keep your vocabulary at an 8th grade level. It’s about making your mission statement clear and easy for the average person to understand.
- Keep it short. Keeping your mission statement short is really about getting the most use out of it. When your mission statement is short, it’s easier to memorize. For marketing purposes, if your mission statement won’t fit on a mug or a t-shirt, it may be too long to be useful.
- Be Specific. Of the millions of nonprofits, only yours can do what it does. Try to zero in on who you are and what you do with the clearest language possible. You may be tempted to use a Mission Statement Generator, but we recommend avoiding it. Mission statement generators are good at linking high-sounding phrases together, but not at getting to the heart of what your nonprofit is about. Only you and your team can do that, so it’s up to you to craft that message.
- Use the Present Tense. You have goals for the future, but outlining those is not what a mission statement is for. Explain who you are as a nonprofit today.
- Stay Open. Do your best to be clear and specific, but don’t be SO specific that you limit yourself from future growth. Think long-term! Your mission statement should encompass your present goals while leaving space for what you hope to accomplish in the future.
- Avoid Buzzwords and Business Jargon. Long strings of adjectives may feel like they sound better, but they may actually water down the impact of your message. Jargon, or the specialized language of a specific group of people, can create significant communication barriers for your intended audience as well. The language of your mission statement should be easy for anyone to understand.
- Ask for Feedback. Your partners and employees are most likely just as committed to your mission as you are, so find out what they think. What aspects of your nonprofit’s mission stand out most to them? Given future growth, what do they see your organization accomplishing in the future?
You’ve done the legwork. You’ve read the tips and guidelines for writing your mission statement. But how do you actually do it? Try using our 5-step exercise to effectively generate your nonprofit’s mission statement.
- A small group of employees (a focus group, or the whole team if you’re a smaller nonprofit)
- An impartial moderator for the group (optional)
- Paper (perhaps Flip Chart paper)
- Index cards
Time allotment: 4-6 hours minimum; potentially 1-2 days if necessary
Step 1: Share Stories
Split your focus group up into smaller groups of 2-3 people. Let each group discuss real-life stories of how your nonprofit has made an impact, OR imagine/create potential stories of impact by answering, “What kind of real help would we be providing if our nonprofit was doing its best work? Have each small group present their story to the larger group and record the responses for everyone to see.
“I adopted my kitten from Paws and Claws about 3 months ago. It’s a great shelter! The dogs and cats each have their own rooms, beds, and to ys. The staff was very helpful and helped us find a match for the dog we already had. They were very patient and spent at least an hour helping us fill out the proper paperwork.”
“I had the opportunity to witness the growth and development of children in need when I volunteered at Atlanta Children’s Home and Family Services while in college. The children had experienced so much hurt in the past. This season, our families just really wanted to make a difference … so we all made gifts to ACHFS. I could not be more satisfied and confident knowing that our gifts positively impact children’s lives.”
“I came into the hospital as a very nervous hip replacement patient. I left confident and relaxed, comfortable with my ability to care for myself and my family. … You cared for me intensely when I needed care and let me care for myself when I was ready. What more could a rehabilitation patient ask for?”
“The hours that I spend volunteering for HOM are the best part of my week. I always look forward to coming into the office and seeing other volunteers and the delightful staff, and I especially cherish the times when I go visit patients. I feel that discovering hospice has been one of the greatest events in my life.”
Step 2: Search For Common Threads
Examine the stories shared and circle, underline, or denote in some way any elements that recur, including, but not limited to these categories:
- People (demographics can be helpful)
- Actions taken
- Problems solved
Use different colors for each category so the common threads become easily recognizable. Using one of the example stories from Step 1, your story should now look something like this:
Step 3: List and Categorize the Most Common Phrases
Look at the words/phrases you marked in each of those stories. Going through each of them, identify which common threads are most significant, or show up the most. List these out by category so everyone can see them.
Step 4: The Six Mission Statement Building Blocks
Once you identify the most commonly used phrases, allocate each phrase to one of the Six Mission Statement Building Blocks:
- Actions (what you do)
- Beneficiaries (who benefits from your services)
- Services (what services you provide)
- Problems (what problems you solve)
- Causes (what overarching causes you support)
- Partners (any crucial partners to your work).
Step 5: Crafting Your Mission Statement
Choose anywhere between 2-5 Mission Statement Building Blocks and begin writing out multiple versions of your nonprofit’s mission statement. Through sharing and discussion, narrow down to your top 3. If the group struggles to agree on the best one, take a break and come back to the process later. In the end, the leader makes the final call.
Share The Love
Once your mission statement is finished, share it! Incorporate it into emails, marketing materials, your website, and anywhere else you might find it useful. If you do it right, your mission statement will serve you for years to come. For more inspiration, read these mission statements from some well-known nonprofits and for-profit companies:
The Nature Conservancy – “to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”
Watts of Love – “Watts of Love is a global solar lighting nonprofit bringing people the power to raise themselves out of the darkness of poverty.”
Girls Scouts – “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.”
Vs. Cancer – “Vs. Cancer empowers any sports team, any athlete, and any community to help kids with cancer. As a signature fundraising campaign of the Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation, proceeds help fund child life programs in local hospitals and lifesaving pediatric brain tumor research.”
New York Public Library – “To inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.”
Make-A-Wish – “We grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength, and joy.”
The Humane Society – “We fight the big fights to end suffering for all animals.”
Red My Lips – “To transform our culture of sexual violence by educating, inspiring, and mobilizing a global community to red their lips, raise their voices, and create real change.”
Advance Auto Parts – “It is the Mission of Advance Auto Parts to provide personal vehicle owners and enthusiasts with the vehicle related products and knowledge that fulfill their wants and needs at the right price. Our friendly, knowledgeable, and professional staff will help inspire, educate, and problem-solve for our customers.”
NPR – “To work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public – one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.”
Starbucks – To inspire and nurture the human spirit—one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.”
Forbes – “To deliver information on the people, ideas, and technologies changing the world to our community of affluent business decision makers.”
Coca-Cola – “To refresh the world, to inspire moments of optimism and happiness, and to create value and make a difference.”
For additional information on this topic, check out our article What a Mission and Vision Statement Can Do For Your Nonprofit. And come back regularly to take advantage of the latest resources posted on our Articles page.