A clear, inspiring mission will help keep the organizational ship on course

Developing and following a clear organizational mission will help focus efforts to achieve desired impacts with measurable outcomes.

In a recent series from Michigan State University Extension, we looked at ten components of extraordinary governance. All are critically important, but one can make the case that an organization without focus is like a board adrift in Lake Michigan. It will eventually arrive on the west Michigan shore, but it gets there by sheer chance, tossed about by the waves and winds, and landing uselessly on the sand.

Certainly, all nonprofit organizations and government units desire to accomplish their best. Their structures, applicable laws and diverse staff and board members exert influences on the direction of the organization similar to those of the winds and waves. So, how does a governing board hold the ship together and keep it moving toward a useful destination?

There is little hope of achieving any meaningful accomplishments without a clear, shared sense of direction. That is what we expect a mission statement to provide; a clear statement of what the organization is trying to accomplish and for whom. It is a statement of achievement, of accomplishment, of how someone will be better as a result of the organization’s effort at some future point in time. It is not a statement of the methods to be used to accomplish the goal. Those are a very important part of the process, but they come later.

A mission needs to be just long enough to articulate the desired impact, yet concise enough to be clear and memorable. It must keep the board and staff focused on strategic objectives which lead to achievable goals. A clear mission also helps the people of an organization see that many other honorable causes which vie for their attention will actually deter them from achieving their true calling.

The mission must give direction in all stages of the organization’s life cycle, through the pains of organizational birth, the struggles of adolescence and the tendency to rest on the laurels that comes with organizational maturity.

It is the duty of the board to develop the mission, and to keep it relevant. Boards need to review their mission on a regular basis, to ensure they are still pursuing it, and on occasion, to adjust it to meet the needs of the changing world around them. Relevance and reminder are crucial to prevent mission creep. Organizations that focus energy in matters unrelated to their mission often find themselves continuing farther off course, small steps at a time, until their accomplishments barely resemble the objective of their mission statement.

The process of creating a mission is enhanced by the inclusion of both staff, who know the detailed effort necessary to accomplish the mission, and stakeholders, who are closest to the needs being addressed by the mission. Both groups have knowledge that is critical to keep an organization focused on an achievable mission, and that knowledge is important when creating the mission, and when reviewing and updating it.

It is helpful for a board to use an outside facilitator when developing or reviewing an organizational mission. This is often part of an annual strategic planning retreat that involves all board members, executive staff and key stakeholders. Facilitators help to keep creative discussion flowing and the process moving forward, allowing all participants to focus on content.

Most importantly, remember that every action, every program and every expenditure of an organization must be in accord with the organizational mission. Mission must drive budget, policy, action and impacts. Organizations that maintain focus on desired outcomes with measurable indicators typically achieve their mission.

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