Do you remember the five W’s? Your high school English teacher probably taught you that every complete story needs to include them — and that goes for nonprofit mission statements, too. A strong mission statement is like a tiny story, covering why your organization exists, who it serves, what actions you take to achieve your goals, and (optionally) where and when you work.

But a truly effective mission statement goes beyond just a statement of facts. Crafting a compelling mission statement — balancing detail versus universal appeal, maximizing impact while minimizing wordcount, and knowing when and how to break the rules — requires careful consideration. Let’s get started with some basics:

Mission Statement Uses

Mission statements serve a number of different purposes, including (but not limited to):

  1. Keeping staff focused on the big-picture outcomes
  2. Quickly communicating your appeal to potential donors
  3. Clarifying your intent and purpose for regulatory authorities

Your mission statement is a succinct, compelling answer to the question “What does your organization do?” Efficiently conveying your work’s scope, activities and importance makes it easier for you to draw people in to your cause and activate potential donors, volunteers and stakeholders.

Mission Statement vs Vision Statement:

Mission and vision statements work hand in hand. Vision statements answer the question: “What will the world look like when you’ve achieved your ultimate goal?” Mission statements get more in-depth, explaining precisely what the organization plans to do to achieve that outcome. These two statements are often combined to provide a complete overview of your purpose, goals, and values. For example: Diaper Bank’s mission statement states:

The Diaper Bank’s long term vision is a community where everyone’s basic needs are met. To accomplish this in the short term we provide diapers to needy populations. To effect long term community improvement, we work to increase awareness of the issues facing vulnerable populations.”

Diaper Bank’s starts the statement with their long-term vision, and ends with how they plan to achieve their mission.

What’s in a Mission Statement?:

Key components of a mission statement include:

  • Why your nonprofit exists
  • Who it serves
  • How it serves them

Strong mission statements are short (1-4 sentences), simple, clear, precise, and informative. If your organization’s mission statement is too vague, you might miss the opportunity to set yourself apart from the crowd and engage people in your mission. Everybody wants things to be better, in general; the question is how you, in specific, are making that happen.

Mission Statements and Specificity:

Mission statements should be broad enough to communicate the big picture and allow for flexibility, while staying specific enough to articulate the unique benefit you bring to the world (also known as a “value proposition”). One good example is Zappos:

To provide the best customer service possible.”

Their mission statement communicates Zappos core appeal without getting into extraneous details. Some things don’t need to be said: Zappos assumes that anyone reading their website will already understand what they do (sell shoes), their products’ quality (high) and their price (affordable), so they dedicate the space instead to their real value proposition: outstanding customer service. This is the perfect balance between getting specific and thinking big.

Where to put your Mission Statement?

Common places to put your mission statements are:

  • Your website’s Home or About page
  • Grant applications
  • Pamphlets
  • Business cards
  • Flyers
  • Banners

Examples of Strong Nonprofit Mission Statements:

  • Electric Girls
    • “Building girls’ confidence and capabilities by engaging them through STEM.”
      • Why it works: It’s clear on who they are serving (girls), what their services are (building confidence and capabilities), and how they plan to serve them (STEM training). Crucially, the word “engaging” allows room for growth without tying the organization to a specific set of programming.
  • Earthjustice
    • “Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.”
      • Why it works: It draws upon an emotional connection to nature with grand words like “magnificent places,” while also acknowledging the human factor in the “right” of all people to a healthy environment.
  • Nothing But Nets
    • “Nothing But Nets is a global, grassroots campaign to save lives by preventing malaria, a leading killer of children in Africa.”
      • Why it works: This statement leads with the big-picture goal (saving lives) and creates a sense of urgency (“leading killer of children”) before focusing attention on a specific geographic region (Africa).

With these tips in mind, you’ll be well on your way to creating the best mission statement possible for your nonprofit! 

National Philanthropic Trust 
2 Nonprofit Source Online Giving Statistics 
3 Cone Communications Millennial CSR Study