Several months ago, I devoted two columns to the topic of vision statements -- what they are, why every nonprofit should have one, and how a board of directors can develop one. I mentioned that nearly every nonprofit I know has a mission statement. Obviously, I was wrong.
Several calls and letters later, it turns out that far too many nonprofits do not have a mission statement at all. In other cases, the mission statement is so outdated it bears little resemblance to what it is that the organization actually does. A few people told me that it had been years since their organization's original mission statement was developed, and one nonprofit representative told me that no one on the board or on staff remembered how to craft one anymore. "Was it that important to bother creating one at this point?" he asked.
Well, the answer is a resounding, shout-it-from-the-rooftop, "YES." Every nonprofit organization should have a mission statement. Every for-profit business should have one, too, for that matter.
A mission statement tells the general public, your staff, your clients, and every one of your market segments exactly what it is you do. It is a concise description of the organization's purpose or reason for being. It tells potential contributors in what they will be investing their money. Most useful of all, in terms of a nonprofit's operations, a mission statement should be used as the standard against which all programs and services are measured.
I am convinced that mission statements are an art form. In that respect, some are a delight to read, some pollute the eyeballs, and most are just ho-hum. Some are one-sentence models in brevity, some drone on for more than a page. The content varies widely. I've seen effective statements in every conceivable format.
Crafting the mission statement is a board responsibility. Mission statements are not forever, though. Part of the board's role is to revisit the mission statement regularly, to be sure that the organization still operates within that mission.
To craft a mission statement, I like to start with a discussion of values. What IS the organization? What does it stand for? What does it value?
A mission statement should state who it is that the organization serves. Some organizations serve multiple groups. For example, while a family planning agency serves men and women in need of its services, it may also have an advocacy role, or may lobby on behalf of legislation.
Next, a mission statement should tell the reader what the organization's scope of work is. Because the mission statement should ideally be contained within a few paragraphs, we're not looking at a list here. Instead, the reader should get a clear idea of the areas within which the agency operates.
Finally, the mission statement should give the reader a sense of what are the unique features of the organization. Are you the only agency in the city that offers comprehensive services to a certain population? Put that in your statement, but only after checking the accuracy of your claim. Does the age of your organization give it a leg up on similar ones, due to the experience of its staff? Say that.
When I work with boards in crafting a mission statement, I emphasize the pride that each member should feel in the final product. After all, the board is the guardian of the agency's mission. If the members do not have a personal feeling of ownership and pride in its mission, how can they give and raise funds, or act as goodwill ambassadors?
One of the trickiest feats in writing a mission statement is getting to consensus on a single statement. One of the best ways to do this is to use the ripple method. Start with each board member developing his or her own statement. Then, work in small groups to craft a single group statement. Finally, use a facilitator to meld the group efforts into the final product.
Once the 'final' product is completed, it's usually a good idea to let the statement simmer until the next board meeting, at which point it can be truly finalized.
(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md., 21921;  392-3160.)