I’ve been thinking about mission statements lately as I draft one with a board that I am on and remind myself to follow my own best advice.
I believe that a mission statement that is aspirational, short, and uses ordinary language is remembered and thus, used. It can serve as an elevator pitch when someone asks “What does your group do?”. It can be used as a touchstone internally, when making strategic decisions as to what to do and what not to do. A longer, complex, or more formal mission statement may look impressive on a plaque or website, but is difficult to keep in one’s mind and to quote.
I have three rules for writing a mission statement that is easy to remember.
1) Be aspirational.
A mission statement should be visionary, bold, and inspire. I know of a staff that didn’t want to include the words “and get a job” in their mission statement because they feared being measured by whether their students got jobs and worried they would fall short. In fact, a mission statement should set out an audacious goal — JDRF’s mission is to find a cure for diabetes; Oxfam is to create lasting solutions to poverty, hunger, and social injustice. It’s the striving, reaching aspect of such a statement that makes it exciting, and thus memorable.
2) Take the time to make it short.
It can take a long time to write a short mission statement. I spent hours with the leadership team of SSEF and used tens of sheets of flip chart paper to finally land on: We support the South Sudanese community of greater Boston to be self-sufficient and to embrace our diverse cultural heritage. Complex concepts were encapsulated in simple words. “Self-sufficient” stands for being educated, getting a job, having access to health care, and more. “Embrace our diverse cultural heritage” addresses the fact that the South Sudanese in greater Boston are from different tribes and speak different languages, but are all South Sudanese and American.
3) Use ordinary words.
Formal language can be difficult to remember. One of my favorite mission statements is one that a young farmer I know told his mom he uses for his goat/cheese farm: I think of stuff that you and Dad and your friends would buy and then I make it. Now it’s true that this may not be used on a website or brochure – but it is driving the farmer and his staff. They now produce goat milk cheese and soap, baseball caps, and a site to be rented out for weddings.
In sum, it is the short mission statement with a bold vision but ordinary words that will be used.