Saturday, September 6, 2014

Stagnant or In Motion: What's Your Nonprofit's Mission?

WHAT'S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT A NONPROFIT'S MISSION STATEMENT ANYWAY?  A recent exchange of emails with a museum client about their mission statement underscores the potential they can play in a nonprofit's growth and development.  I've been encouraging this client to go beyond the usual, inward-focused litany of activities that virtually every museum in the world cites as their mission.  Yes, museums collect and preserve stuff.  But if that's all they did, they'd be more like mausoleums than museums.

The museum director and his staff have had several robust discussions about what the museum does and the audiences they serve.  It's clear from their conversations that the museum is much more than a place full of stuff.  There's meaning and resonance there, too.  Sorting through that has been both an intellectual and emotional exercise.

Museums are not the only victims of tepid mission statements.  There are plenty of nonprofits of all stripes that hew to a litany of well-worn phrases and dusty metaphors.  Why do so many nonprofits seem content to go through life with a wishy-washy, nondescript, beige mission statement?  When the competition for audience and money is so fierce, when separating one's organization from the pack is so important, why do organizations time after time turn a blind eye to marking their turf as boldly as possible?  Is there something about having to declare to the world "we are this and we own it!" which causes us to choose the safe position, the middle of the road, neutral over drive?

If a nonprofit is going to stand for something, shouldn't it be something worthy of the blood, sweat and tears we pour into them?  Are we afraid to go too far out on a limb for fear we can't or won't live up to our reason for being?  Fear of your nonprofit's ability to be more than 'meh' for sure won't attract much attention or support....or terrific boards and staff talent.  

Here's where Newton comes in and even though it's about physics, I think it can be applied to nonprofits:  those in motion, stay in motion; those that are stagnant, stay stagnant.

Stagnant missions do nothing to provoke movement.  They are lazy; virtually useless words on a piece of paper that few read and nobody takes to heart.  Stagnant mission statements and the thinking behind them provide cover for tame, even timid, leadership.

Missions in motion call out and heighten a nonprofit's points of distinction.  They draw a clear line around an organization's reason for being and its public benefit.  Missions in motion stretch an organization's potential.  They are energizing, because they are alive with meaning.  And they facilitate big, powerful thinking.  



5 comments:

Jeanne Vergeront said...

Anne, you have done a great service to your client and to other museums to advocate so well for mission statements that are compelling and courageous and distinguish a museum from other organizations on the landscape. Thank you!

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Thank, Jeanne! I, for one, don't think mission statements are irrelevant fluff and it disheartens me so when museum leaders treat them in such off-handed ways.

Heather Langham said...

Hi Anne,
Would it be possible for you to post a sample of a inspiring mission statement; one that goes beyond stating the obvious functions of the organization. Or direct us to a mission statement that you find effective.
Thanks for inspiring us!
Heather Langham
President of the Board, FOJJH

Anne W. Ackerson said...

Hi, Heather --

Here are a few samples to whet your appetite:

Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT
Mission
The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center preserves and interprets Stowe's Hartford home and the Center's historic collections, promotes vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspires commitment to social justice and positive change.

Inspiring Action: Stowe's Challenge
Harriet Beecher Stowe inspires us to believe in our own ability to effect change. Her life demonstrates one person's ability to make a difference. Stowe changed public perception of a young nation's divisive issue, slavery, using her words to change the world. Her example is as important today as it was in her time.


Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Catskill, NY
The Thomas Cole National Historic Site preserves and interprets the home and studios of Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, the nation's first art movement. Cole's profound influence on America's cultural landscape inspires us to engage broad audiences through educational programs that are relevant today.


Historic Cherry Hill, Albany, NY

Mission
Through its preservation, research and interpretive initiatives, Historic Cherry Hill focuses on one Albany family’s search for order and stability in response to personal and social change, encouraging the public to establish an emotional connection and critical distance in order to gain perspective on their own history and lives.


Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, VA
The Thomas Jefferson Foundation engages a global audience in a dialogue with Jefferson’s ideas.

The Foundation seeks to facilitate conversations and to use its extensive research and knowledge to stimulate interactions on a variety of topics that were of keen interest to Jefferson, the most powerful of which are liberty and self-government. Through virtual, off-site and on-site engagement, the Foundation seeks to excite the world about Jefferson’s relevance today and ignite a passion for history.

Edison National Historic Site, Menlo Park

For more than forty years, the laboratory created by Thomas Alva Edison in West Orange, New Jersey, had enormous impact on the lives of millions of people worldwide. Out of the West Orange laboratories came the motion picture camera, vastly improved phonographs, sound recordings, silent and sound movies and the nickel-iron alkaline electric storage battery.

Edison National Historic Site provides a unique opportunity to interpret and experience important aspects of America's industrial, social and economic past, and to learn from the legacy of the world's best known inventor.


Waterford Museum & Cultural Center, Waterford, NY

Mission Statement
As a pivotal gateway for New York's immigration and commerce, Waterford and its neighboring communities reflect an interrelated history of innovation, industry and ingenuity. Using traditional and new technologies, WHMCC will stir the imagination, interest and involvement of residents and visitors alike in this unfolding local story of history and culture.

Anne W. Ackerson said...

And a few more:

The Tenement Museum, New York
The Tenement Museum (NY) preserves and interprets the history of immigration through the personal experiences of the generations of newcomers who settled in and built lives on Manhattan's Lower East Side, America's iconic immigrant neighborhood; forges emotional connections between visitors and immigrants past and present; and enhances appreciation for the profound role immigration has played and continues to play in shaping America's evolving national identity.


Brooklyn Historical Society
Brooklyn Historical Society (NY) connects the past to the present and makes the vibrant history of Brooklyn tangible, relevant, and meaningful for today's diverse communities, and for generations to come.


Mattatuck Museum, CT
The Mattatuck Museum (CT) is a center of art and history, a gathering place that nurtures creativity and learning through transformative experiences to encourage a deeper understanding of ourselves and our heritage.