How to Write a Mission Statement

Photo by David Iskander on Unsplash

I’ve been working on writing mission statements for some time now. I’ve looked at many of the 220,000,000 websites I mentioned in the post “Start with Mission”. There are four-step versions and five-step versions and a variety of how-to sites out there. I’ve landed on a formula that is simple and clear and has worked for me as both a leader and as a facilitator for other leaders.

“A good mission statement can surprise, inspire, and transform your (work).”

The above quote is from a marketing firm, I like it because it challenges us to be more creative in drafting our mission statements. While the formula is simple, it shouldn’t lead to a result that is pedestrian. As you are thinking about the answers to the three questions I use for crafting mission statements, challenge yourself to inspire yourself, your colleagues, and the people you serve.

Oh, and do all this in 25 words or less! Yes, 25 is a somewhat arbitrary number, but only somewhat. Its purpose is to keep people from listing everything they do. A mission statement isn’t a list of departments, tasks, or even goals. A mission is a statement that encompasses everyone and everything. It defines the threads that tie all of the different tasks together into a coherent purposeful whole. A word limit requires us to choose our words thoughtfully and deliberately.

Question #1

What do we do? Resist the list! Work to find that thread. What is the overarching answer to this question? How can we describe what we do in a way that has meaning to people who work in our organizations and to others. Here’s a great example:  “The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies….” There’s more to their mission statement, but this is their answer to the what question. It is broad, but it’s clear. It defines an area of expertise and responsibility and, in the process, defines what they do not do. The TED organization takes it even further. Their mission? “Spread ideas.” It’s all about the ‘what’.

Question #2

How do we do it? I challenge people to make their answer an expression of values rather than a point by point explanation of their processes. The answer to this question is often formatted as a prepositional phrase following words such as ‘by’ and ‘through’. Here’s the last half of the Red Cross mission statement: “…by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.” Again, broad yet clearly defined. Here’s one from an educational institution: “…through premier programs and services that promote student success, enhance the learning experience, and engage students….”

Question #3

For whom do we do it? Often this is implied by the mission statement. In the Red Cross mission, the ‘who’ is people who have experienced some sort of emergency. Their use of the phrase human suffering defines the ‘who’. Red Cross doesn’t try to cope with animal suffering during a disaster response. They leave that to other organizations. This Student Affairs division was more direct: “…we support students…”. Another was a bit more oblique, tucking it into their ‘what’: “…student-centered programs and services,….”  However you decide to state it, don’t forget the obvious. 

The work of a large complex organization can be difficult to explain. So, don’t try to merely explain. Work to find the overarching purpose and the ideas that remind everyone they are working toward the same end. That’s the most important element in learning how to write a mission statement.

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