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Nonprofits

The Eight-Word Mission Statement

Don’t settle for more.

Whatever windy drivel they might put forward as a corporate mission statement, mainstream for-profit businesses have a clear, central mission: make money for shareholders. Some do it more sustainably, some are nicer about it, but they’re all in the same boat. If they have a bad idea or execute poorly on a good one, they fail in their mission and eventually go out of business.

Mission statements in the social sector are often the same kind of word-salad, but there isn’t a common raison d’etre. As investors in impact, we—the Mulago Foundation—don’t want to wade through a bunch of verbiage about “empowerment,” “capacity-building,” and “sustainability”—we want to know exactly you’re trying to accomplish. We want to cut to the chase, and the tool that works for us is the eight-word mission statement. All we want is this:

A verb, a target population, and an outcome that implies something to measure—and we want in eight words or less. 

Why eight words? It just seems to work. It’s long enough to be specific and short enough to force clarity. Save kids’ lives in Uganda. Rehabilitate coral reefs in the Western Pacific. Prevent maternal-child transmission of HIV in Africa. Get Zambian farmers out of poverty. These statements tell us exactly what the organization has set out to accomplish. Once we’ve got it, we know whether they are working on something that fits our own mission, and we have a useful starting point for any subsequent conversations.

Notice two things about the mission statements above above. First, they include very concrete results. “Creating awareness,” “empowering” somebody, “changing attitudes”—those aren’t real impacts. They may be necessary steps on the path to impact, but they don’t tell you where that path was supposed to end up. Second, a good mission statement is about the what, not the how. For example, most social entrepreneurs want to dive immediately into their ideas about how change is going to happen—that, appropriately, is their ongoing obsession, what keeps them working in lousy conditions for crappy pay. But I need to understand exactly what that change is, before I can make sense of their notion about how it’s to come about.

If we sit down with the leaders of an organization and can’t come up with a mutually satisfying eight words, then we probably wouldn’t get along anyway. What’s been surprising is how long it can take to get those eight words (or less), even with—or maybe especially with—organizations that have been around a while. It’s not uncommon to have organizations end up with a mission quite different that the one with which they came in the door.

We’ve found the eight-word mission a crucial tool for funding decisions; it also turns out to be a great tool for design. You have to know where you’re going to be able to figure out the best way to get there. A good eight-word mission helps startups to evolve their big idea without getting pulled off track by their business model, the demands of funders, or the latest shiny object they found by the side of the road. For more established organizations, it can be a guide through a necessary iterative process of re-design, helping them strip the hull of all the barnacles and unnecessary appendages that have accreted on the voyage so far. 

Razor-sharp clarity about where you’re going allows you to ask three critically important questions: 1) Is this the best way to get there? 2) Is there anything else we should be doing to accelerate along the path? and 3) Is everything we’re doing really focused on getting there? The first question helps prevent the bane of startups, fixing too early and rigidly on a specific idea; the second pushes evolution of models and activities; and the third helps you avoid or get rid of stuff that is a distraction or waste of bandwidth. 

(A classic example of the last issue is an organization that is doing, say, poverty work in Africa, but putting a lot of effort into “educating” people in the United States. That’s like installing a mile-long rubber band between effort and impact. The education effort needs to become part of a cost-effective, fund-raising program or a laser-focused effort to change specific policy—or it needs to be killed.)

And finally, the eight-word mission statement is indispensable as a starting point for real measurement of impact. You can’t measure impact unless you know what you’re setting out to accomplish. Getting your mission right is step one in getting your indicators right. With a good eight-word mission, you can bypass all that input-output-outcomes stuff and cut to the chase with a simple question: “How would I best know if I’m fulfilling my mission?” (We at the Mulago Foundation like to ask people, “If you could measure only one thing, what would it be?”—but that is for the next column). I’d rather get the results of M&E from lay people who have really grappled with their mission than from pros that worked from a mission handed to them.

I’m not an expert in anything, really, and not infrequently I find myself in a room with people smarter and better informed than I am. They’re often trying to save the world in one way or another, and they’re usually doing their job, which is to pitch for support from our foundation. Most of them do it quite well, and they are, by and large, my favorite kind of people. But I have a job to do as well—to squeeze the most impact out of Mulago dollars—and it is here that the eight-word mission statement becomes my lifeline. It jump-starts a productive and respectful conversation that doesn’t waste anyone’s time.

Read more stories by Kevin Starr.

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COMMENTS

  • BY andy schmitt

    ON September 19, 2012 07:01 AM

    But without all those glossy, frilly words, and frothy sentences, what would boards & administrations get to spend so much time frittering over?
    How would one administration differentiate itself for the past ones?
    This is almost like having artists produce concise, descriptive artist statements.

    An Excellent idea sir and a great article…

  • BY Gayle L. Gifford

    ON September 20, 2012 11:41 AM

  • I completely agree with the power of the short mission statement and use this approach in my use of the One Page Business Plan for business planning.  However, a for profit business that puts something about making money into it’s mission statement won’t be in business for long.  Their mission statement needs to be customer focused, i.e. FedEx and “The World on Time.”  This is not just for show.  In order to make money a business needs to focus on the needs of the customer, and the customer doesn’t care about how much money you make.  I recently blogged about the distinction between mission statements for social and entrepreneurs and regular firms at http://tinyurl.com/ccx435y

  • BY David Frankel

    ON September 20, 2012 01:40 PM

    Great article and for the record here is our mission in 8 words:
    “Disrupt poverty in developing mountain communities with ecotourism.” 
    visit http://www.aleevee8.com and it seems we are both about the “8”

  • BY Sara Jane Lowry

    ON September 21, 2012 06:38 AM

    Really great to create a laser point and cut through the verbiage.

  • Linda Morse's avatar

    BY Linda Morse

    ON September 22, 2012 03:33 PM

    Defines a mission, clarifies project and product.

  • BY Beth Thompson

    ON September 22, 2012 11:01 PM

    I’m new to this, and I’m confused.
    What is the difference between vision and mission?
    Our vision: Conversation partners building a cohesive community that cherishes immigrants.
    Our mission statement:
    Through small-group English classes, Americans and immigrants develop relationships of mutual respect that result in immigrants’ integration in the U.S. society and a warm welcome into communities of support. 
    My understanding was that the vision describes how the nonprofit wants to change the world or community, and the mission statement describes how we get there.
    Regarding the fb URL: No website or logo yet because we are just getting started, and it has to be done right the first time.

  • kevin starr's avatar

    BY kevin starr

    ON September 25, 2012 10:09 PM

    Beth - don’t sorry about the the vision/mission stuff.  it is and will always be confusing. I could never figure it out either. 

    For whatever it’s worth, your (less than) eight-word mission seems pretty simple: integrate immigrants into American communities.  That’s what you do; how you do it is apparently through small-group English classes (I have no idea just what the special sauce of your English classes might be, but I’m sure that there are specific things about them that make it work).

    Thanks for the work you do.

  • Great discussion and the subject of a blog on ‘NFP Strategy’ (http://www.nfpstrategy.com.au).

    http://nfpstrategy.com.au/2012/06/17/vision-mission/

    Vision and Mission statements are classicly misunderstood and poorly used. Used well, they are world-changing, used poorly they are almost the opposite. While I like the article, Kevin, your template might better suit a social enterprise or single-purpose - an entity or program established to address a particular and clear social need. In which case - excellent stuff.

    Russ

  • BY andrewnemiccolo

    ON October 4, 2012 07:57 PM

    Kevin, thanks for a great article and follow up comments. I’m really pleased to see you urging folks to combine the Mission and Vision statements. The two are simply confusing.

    The 8 word mission statement really gives clarity and focus. All action and communication can easily be checked to see if it contributes to the 8 word mission statement or not.

    Supporting content, such as the “About Us” page and “Success Stories” can be developed and shared in support of the 8 word mission statement.  Here’s some more info: 

    http://sevenstorylearning.com/communication/about-the-most-important-page-on-your-website/

  • Jill Finlayson's avatar

    BY Jill Finlayson

    ON October 26, 2012 02:27 PM

    Hi Kevin - So Mulago’s mission would be something like:

    Invest in social ventures making a measurable difference.

    ?

  • I’m in the process of working with a school staff to write a mission and vision. I see the mission answering the question Why do we exist? Fundamental purpose. The vision answers What must our school become to accomplish our purpose.

    An eight word mission seems like a good goal.

  • I like the eight word mission in theory, but some organizations are very large with a variety of work. Each of their programs could probably do a eight word mission, but I doubt an eight word mission for the organization would necessarily capture the breadth of what they are doing. Would if you organization is ‘saving kids in Uganda’ and also ‘rehabilitating coral reefs in blah’?

  • BY Allan Shore

    ON November 12, 2012 10:31 AM

    Makes sense given other recent news by Stanford icon of sorts former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said good people can sway a president’s opinion with just two pages of a creatively written case statement. I narrowed it a bit by naming my consulting service OnePageWriter - mostly also to capture the interest of those who believe the number of characters brought about by technological transmission limitations is what it takes to “Tweak” the world into a better position.

    While I appreciate what you are getting at, in reality, as a professional grant writer for 30 years, I know one cannot convey the clarity this piece suggests in eight words or FEWER (not less, BTW). The examples given mean as little as stretching a rubber band to shoot operational components across the seas into cultures of struggle. Then again, I have given in to some of this same fear of intelligent, in-depth substance. I’ve put my anti-obesity campaign empowerment model—I’m not fearful of that word either—onto a Wordpress site about AngrySodas even though the real concept is more like Using Nickels to Turn Burgers Against Obesity!! Catchy, I’ll give my self, but not really doing justice to what underlies the purpose-filled redesign of the credit card/ATM system to act like a sophisticated charitable collection jar.

    Still, I have given in to the limited details of your devil. I just hope that we can move through this phase of progress fairly quickly because it is making everyone in the world believe they are capable of building the better proposal package. And if that happens, why on Earth would one need an institution like Stanford to endow minds with so much excess knowledge?

  • BY Richard Reiss

    ON December 9, 2012 12:33 PM

    I’d like to add five words to this excellent conversation, especially on the heels of COP 18/Doha:

    “Don’t live in the past.”

    I’ve found that there are many good minds in the non-profit sector; every thought is valuable these days, so please consider where things will be in five and ten years. Try to avoid band-aids, even good band-aids, if you can adapt your mission to more relevant channels.

    Here’s a thinking starter kit as to why I say that, from Steven Emmott, researcher at Oxford:

    guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/12/robin-mckie-climate-change-dangers

    Here’s another one, from Robert Socolow, researcher at Princeton:

    http://www.vanderbiltlawreview.org/content/articles/2012/11/Socolow_-65_Vand_L_Rev_1455.pdf

    How this information affected my own non-profit:

    http://yalenonprofit.org/artistascitizen.html

     

  • BY Richard Reiss

    ON December 9, 2012 12:45 PM

    and one more: PBS on Doha:

    http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/climate-change/july-dec12/climate_12-03.html

    A Newshour report from last week that contains one of the most honest exchanges ever:

    GWEN IFILL: You read a lot of these reports, Coral. And as you read this one, what struck you as brand-new?

    CORAL DAVENPORT, “The National Journal”: What’s new about this report is for the past 18 years, the United Nations climate change process has been working towards one specific goal. And that is cutting carbon emissions before the global average temperature increases by two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

    That has been sort of the critical point that we can’t go past. It’s kind of a point of no return.

    What this study tells us is that the culmination of the carbon dioxide that’s already in the atmosphere and the carbon dioxide that’s projected to come into the atmosphere over the next few years with development from India and China is already so much that it is almost inevitable that we will go past that two-degree—that two-degree critical mark.

    We’re pretty much on track at this point now to go past the point that we have all been trying to avoid.

    GWEN IFILL: And if we go past it, what happens?

    CORAL DAVENPORT: It’s a big point.

    The two-degree mark is the point at which the polar ice sheets will melt, leading to rapid sea level rise. It’s also a point at which many areas of the world will no longer be able to grow food.

    So, it’s likely that we could see price spikes, food shortages. These are the kinds of things that will set off a lot of other rapid and potentially catastrophic chain reactions.

    GWEN IFILL: When we look at that prospect, not a cheery one, is it because we have failed in our efforts to control carbon emissions?

    CORAL DAVENPORT: Well, at this point, the answer is probably yes.

  • BY Aaron Hurst, Taproot Foundation

    ON December 21, 2012 12:20 PM

    Tried it with our mission (9 words anyway).

    CURRENT MISSION
    Lead, mobilize and engage professionals in pro bono service that drives social change.

    KEVIN-IFIED
    “Ensure professional services are accessible to social change organizations.”

    Not sure it is as effective as a decision making tool as it doesn’t include the *how* which is what we use to make management decisions about priorities.  There are too many ways to achieve it and therefore it doesn’t have the power.

    Your example, “Save kids’ lives in Uganda” could be done 1,000 ways.  In a crowded nonprofit field, like “saving kids’ lives in NYC” it would not enable the discipline and differentiation you would need to get funding or create a strategy.

    So, I endorse your approach but would allow folks 3-4 more words to say “how”.

  • BY Aaron Hurst, Taproot Foundation

    ON February 11, 2013 07:19 AM

    I really want to agree with you Kevin, but can’t.

    Unlike a company, nonprofit organization’s use their mission as their bottom line. It is not a marketing tool or something that should be designed for foundations.  It’s primary goal is to help an organization gain focus on purpose.

    Having a bottom line that is so broad it doesn’t enable effective internal decision making. A mission statement should be a guide to decide on alternative paths or investments. 

    Also, it isn’t just about intent of impact but position in the market. In a crowded market like the US, where so many nonprofits are working to “end hunger in NYC”.  It is important to now just define the end outcome but the “how” in this case.

    All that said, most missions are too long and full of jargon so like the direction.

  • BY Ariel Dekovic

    ON April 1, 2013 07:45 AM

    Aaron, if you are going to Kevin-ify Taproot’s mission, I think you should include a modifier on professional services (since often the issue of the professional services that non-profits can afford is the level of, well, professionalism) - something like “Make world-class professional services accessible to social change organizations.”

    I have to disagree with Aaron on the brand differentiation point. Part of the idea behind a mission is to express the problem you are solving. If you specify the “how”, your organization becomes closed to the better ways of solving the problem that might arise during its lifetime.

    My organization’s mission is “To make schools a better place to learn” (8 words on the dot!), and with that outcome-based mission statement, we’ve moved from providing services to a small number of districts building new schools to providing solutions for 130,000 existing schools. The outcome-based mission statement has allowed us to rethink how we might better achieve our mission and reach more schools and affect the lives of more students. If we had had a how in the original statement, we might not have felt the freedom to redefine ourselves based on our stakeholders’ needs.

    I’m not saying it’s perfect - the “how” we do our mission is the special sauce of course, and it as question that inevitably follows upon hearing our mission statement, but at least from the get-go people know what we are trying to achieve.

  • Gary Arcus's avatar

    BY Gary Arcus

    ON April 3, 2013 08:55 PM

    This echoes John Argenti’s approach in ‘Practical Corporate planning’ - and that book has really good examples for not-for-profit orgs,  As always, saying less is better but much more difficult.

  • BY Keith A Pearson

    ON May 16, 2013 01:21 AM

    What a shame. Some great content and comments but your choice of font makes it incredibly difficult to read. May I politefully suggest that if you wish to encourage readership and discussion then you should switch your content to a more user-friendly font that doesn’t cause eye-strain.

  • BY Daniel Ben-Horin

    ON July 3, 2013 05:38 PM

    Belatedly, but ferociously, let me disagree with this post. It may be convenient for Mulago to have missions presented to them in this way; it may (it obviously does) fit their particular way of accessing and evaluating information. That’s fine. For Mulago. And it’s necessary, it appears, for nonprofits that want money from Mulago.  It’s not fine or helpful to adduce this approach as a paradigm for general consumption. It is analogous to people saying, “I don’t read any email longer than one screen on my mobile.” It is a way of limiting input by one’s own rigid terms, and in the process eliminating input from any sources that employ different terms.

    My objection is primarily to the arbitrary, even capricious, nature of the “8 word” dictum.

    Kevin states: “Why eight words? It just seems to work. It’s long enough to be specific and short enough to force clarity.”

    Always? The 4-hour work week…the 7 habits of highly effective people…the 8 word mission statement…the 3 best reductionist fallacies of those who want to make everything simple and prescriptive…

    A mission statement is not just for funders and impact investors. It is for clients and other beneficiaries. It is for staff. It is for the media. It is for a nuanced audience and, depending on what you do, you might need to have a nuanced mission statement that is as long as 11 words. Or 111. It should be clear; no purpose is served by being hard to understand. It should be compelling. It should illuminate the activities you will undertake that can be measured. If it meets those criteria, I think it has done its job, at any length.

  • BY Katrina McGhee

    ON August 29, 2013 03:14 AM

    Love this article. As a veteran of the non-profit sector, I can attest that if you can’t describe your mission in a single sentence you haven’t thought it through enough. You’ve also given me something to think about for my for-profit endeavor. Great read!

  • Great points, but I disagree with your 8 word mission being about what you do…Your mission should be about “Why” you do it. Its should be practical yet symbolic of the true essence of your organization. A great mission statement is for the purpose of inspiring the reader so that the message resonates in their heart and they can align to become a donor, business customer, or investor….Your purpose is a focus on what and how you do what you do.

    As Simon Sinek says, no one buys what you sell, they buy why you sell it.

  • A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I think that you should publish
    more on this subject matter, it may not be a taboo subject
    but usually people don’t speak about these issues.
    To the next! Many thanks!!

  • Guruare Guana's avatar

    BY Guruare Guana

    ON February 13, 2014 01:26 AM

    Thanks, Kevin.

    The article is succinct and certainly a great help.

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