Nonprofits need to clarify their missions

By Max T. Russell

One of the great ironies I see in my work on a regular basis is that most nonprofit organizations cannot tell you what they do. It’s not because they’re hiding anything. They just haven’t put the thoughts and words together.

The irony is that almost all of these organizations start with the intent of doing good for society, and yet they are really bad at telling their target market, their donors and their boards exactly what they’re doing.

When leaders cannot clearly and concisely state their organization’s purpose, you will find that their emails, letters, pamphlets, booklets, videos and interviews transmit poorly related messages.

That’s a big waste of money and energy.

I know someone who admitted he had been fired from his previous position as director because new board members couldn’t tell from his reports what the nonprofit was doing. After he moved to another organization, he and I went through and reworded all the messages he was sending out in various formats.

But first, he had to answer a question: “what exactly are you doing?”

As I expected, it stopped him in his tracks. Based on his many sentences and the difficulty I had distinguishing them from sentences I’ve heard from other directors, I derived he knew his purpose, but he didn’t have the words to communicate it effectively on demand.

Two months later, his communications in every format were so refined and aligned that every message he put out was like a light in the night. His new clarity makes all the messages from the organization that fired him look downright lousy.

That was not the intent. It’s just another example of how nonprofits stand out when their leaders say clearly and concisely what they need to say. The usual style among directors is to bury their purpose in an array of philosophical, unprofessionally written jargon.

I’m talking mission statements.

Anybody can tell you what they’re up to if you give them a whole paragraph and you don’t expect them to get specific: “We give our patrons the world-class service they deserve, and we won’t stop doing our best, and we’ll offer the best price, and we’ll provide a friendly environment that recognizes everyone’s dignity.”

Whether organizations are fixing cars, frying burgers, teaching math or fighting for political reform, that’s their mission statement. It hardly ever tells you what they’re really doing, in spite of the enthusiasm that the management or board may derive from it.

Are you a nonprofit leader or board member trying to make this world a better place? Here are two suggestions for discovering the words that represent your organization’s purpose.

First, try stating the purpose in three sentences. Don’t be surprised if it takes you two days to do that. It takes most people many months! Then carve those two sentences down to one — just one.

Second, ask a few honest, unfriendly people to listen to you tell them your organization’s purpose. All they have to do is ask, “What do you do?” and all you have to do is say your one sentence and then ask if it sounds clear and practical.

You might think that sound silly or overly simple. It’s neither one. Competent leaders find this exercise exceedingly difficult to do in a manner that hits the nail on the head and creates a unifying theme for their communications. Mission statements are not made for that. You don’t even need one.

Your organization will feel new wind under its wings when you take time to stop, come out from behind your mission statement and prepare for the little exercise I just described. You will qualify for more funding and for the kind of volunteers and partnerships you need to do the most good for the most people.

Max T. Russell of New Palestine writes for the international business intelligence and nonprofit communities. Send comments to