Mission Statement Checkup: How’s Yours?

Pender Island

Mission statements should avoid vague and lofty turns of phrase like “transforms lives” or “provides hope” or “empowers wise choices”.

All planning starts with a mission. From your mission flow your vision, your strategic goals, your management plan, interpretive plan, marketing plan… and all of the magical visitor experiences you live to facilitate. Without a solid mission or mandate, your organization is rudderless.

Mission vs Mandate

Mission statements and mandates look similar, and the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Both are concise statements that describe the core purpose of an organization.

A mandate is given to an organization by the entity that establishes it. Government-run organizations have mandates, generally handed to them by their governing ministry or department. A mandate is, in a sense, a kind of operating license, or a set of high-level marching orders.

Mission statements are used by self-governing, independent organizations like non-profits and businesses, and are crafted by those who found the organization.

Evaluating Your Mission Statement

A good mission statement meets four criteria:

  • It describes what you do, simply and effectively. At a glance, the reader grasps who you are and how you spend your days.
  • It is specific enough to act as a filter for proposed new activities, yet is broad enough to allow for some innovation and evolution.
  • It is easy for everyone to recall and recite. 1
  • It promises only what it can reasonably hope to deliver.

Note that within any organization, there is only one mission. Departments within that organization don’t have missions; projects, plans and programs don’t have missions; rather, these all have strategic goals that serve the mission. This is fundamental: everyone in the organization serves the same mission, in different ways.

A good basic formula for a mission statement is: (Organization Name) does (desired accomplishment) for (beneficiary), through (activity).  For example:

The Jameson Society brings the history of the Appalachians to life for the people of the Maple Creek area, through research and public education.

The Duck Lake Nature Society conserves the wetlands of southeastern Ontario by engaging our communities in education and action.

Alesund, Norway

Breaking Down the Parts

Let’s look at these components. The organization name is simple.

Your desired accomplishment or purpose is your chance to describe your core line of business. Do you protect and present a natural area? Do you educate school children about wetlands? Do you conserve and present a historic house? Write it. Keep it simple.

Avoid vague and lofty turns of phrase like “transforms lives” or “provides hope” or “changes the world”. Save those for your vision statement, or better yet, your fundraising material. What do you actually do? How will you spend your days? Write it down. Be as specific as you can. Do not promise anything your organization can’t reasonably hope to deliver.

It’s a governance document.

Remember that your mission statement is a governance piece, not a slogan or a tag line. It is not a piece of PR, and must not be drafted as such. Its audience is, first and foremost, your staff, your board (present and future), your voting members, your funders, and lastly your public. The mission statement should be your single most powerful tool in ensuring that your organization stays true to the work for which it was formed.

Okay, moving on. Your beneficiary: Who are the people (or resources) that will benefit from your actions? Can you describe them geographically and demographically? “The people of southern Alberta”. “Seniors from coast to coast.” “Young mothers of Canada’s north”. “School children of Winnipeg.” “Threatened species in the Eastern Townships.” “Montane ecosystems and the people who enjoy them.”

Your activity– How will you go about making the changes in the world that you promise? Do you achieve your mission through education? Research? Direct action? Partnerships? Will you offer endowments? Lend expertise to individuals or organizations? Some combination of the above? Spell it out.

What if you’re not sure how you will achieve your mission?

If you are a new society and your mission is still not entirely clear, you have two choices: write a broad, umbrella mission statement that comprises all your possibilities, or pause, do more research, make some decisions, and then draft your mission statement. As you might guess, the latter is by far the wiser choice. Do you know if there is a need for your work in your area? Do you know who your clientele will be? Have you analyzed your competition and demonstrated that you fill a niche better than anyone else? Are you confident that you will have the expertise to deliver what your mission promises? Are there sources of funding through grants, program revenue, donations et cetera to support your mission?

All of these questions need answers before you proceed as a society and as a tourism attraction. Have you defined your resource—your heritage or nature attraction—and described its essence to the point that you are confident your visitor experience is unique and compelling? As you work to find the answers to the above questions, you’ll find your mission—your unique driving purpose as a society and as a destination—becoming more clear.

Hedging for future opportunities

Board members are sometimes reluctant to writing a concise, finite mission statement because they want to leave the organization open to future opportunities. Thus they err on the vague side: “The Jameson Society brings history to life, period.” Such mission statements are lofty, ambitious and nearly useless. Remember, a good mission statement must act as a filter for future proposals, and must at least have a hope of delivering on its promise. Using the above example, does the Jameson society bring Caribbean history to life? Sure. Do they operate via the web? Will they film a TV series? Yes and yes. How about a retrospective on the plague in Norway? Check. Can they open a visitor centre in Bhutan? Why not? One of the members wants to write Victorian historical novels on behalf of the society? Sure. And if two or three board members or staff disagree about these proposals, there is nothing in the founding documents to guide them.

A vague mission statement brings confusion, diffusion, disagreement and conflict. Avoid it.

Imagine yourself as the last remaining member of your founding board, having poured years of toil and tears into your organization. Picture a new board member with an ambitious agenda who is excited about taking the organization in bold new directions without a full understanding of the costs (human, social and financial) of doing so. Will your mission statement back you up when you try to reason with that person?

This is not to say that mission statements are written in stone. In the first years of your organization, you may refine or alter your statement several times. And several years into the lifespan of your society, you may decide it’s time to accommodate the changes you’ve seen around you, and revisit your mission statement. But that is a process that involves research and consultation and careful consideration.

Next: Crafting a Vision Statement

Notes:

  1. This one is easy to test. Ask your staff; ask your colleagues. If nobody can recite your mission, you either have unfocussed staff or a crappy mission statement. In my experience it’s generally the latter.
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