Rethinking the Mission Statement

Historic map and toolsThis week I’m attending the Small Museums Association‘s 29th annual conference in Ocean City, Maryland, where I’ll be giving a plenary address this morning on, “Mild-Mannered Superheroes Rarely Make a Difference.”  As you might have guessed, it’s a mash-up of a quotation by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and the conference theme on superheros.  I hope to encourage attendees to rethink their mission, vision, and strategy to become more relevant and engaging in their communities.  Unfortunately, most museum mission statements are mild-mannered, with the usual phrase of “collect, preserve, and interpret” stuck behind the name of the organization.

Funding agencies, museum accreditation, and strategic plans require a mission statement, so many organizations create a least offensive version that can be approved by the board.  The result is that mission statements are often so vague that they’re ignored, have little to no influence on day-to-day activities, and are viewed as empty public relations gestures that provokes cynicism.  No doubt they’ve found that having a mission statement doesn’t have much impact, but a recent study shows that the right kind of mission statement can significantly improve financial success and organizational performance.

In “Looking at the Value of Mission Statements: A Meta-Analysis of 20 Years of Research,” Sebatian Desmidt, Anita Prinzie, and Adelien Decramer (Management Decision, 2011) examined more than 11,000 (yes, eleven thousand!) published studies on mission statements in commercial and non-profit settings and concluded that good mission statements should:

  • Not contain financial goals
  • Define purpose
  • Identify values and beliefs
  • Recognize unique identity, strength, or distinctive competence
  • Focus on audiences served and the means to satisfy them
  • Be short [they didn’t mention a length, but I’ll recommend 25-50 words]

When organizations emphasized these elements in their mission statements, they found a clear correlation to financial performance.   The process of crafting a mission statement is just as important as the product–it needs to be developed by a broad coalition of internal stakeholders, such as board, staff, volunteers, members, and supporters.  It’s the process that builds present-day support for the mission across the organization and guides everyone’s efforts.  The written statement provides future support for the mission through ongoing reinforcement.

If you’ve ever worked on a mission statement for an organization, you know how incredibly difficult it is.  To help with this endeavor, I’m drafting a guide to the process based on the research in “Looking at the Value of Mission Statements” and Business Model You by Timothy Clark, Alexander Osterwalder, and Yves Pigneur (2012).  I’ll be sharing it at the Small Museum Association conference today and after I’ve received some comments from the attendees, I’ll revise it and share it on this blog.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking the Mission Statement

  1. Bill Goodwin

    Dear Mr. van Balgooy:
    Thank you for this blog. Our deputy director heard you at the small museum conference and we will be very interested to see your next blog on the topic.


  2. thehistorylist

    Interesting topic–and a great title.

    Too often mission statements are carefully-crafted documents that do nothing to focus the organization’s efforts, articulate their relevance to their various audiences, or engage people inside and outside the organization in ways that propel the organization forward,

    As we were breathing new life into our local historical society in Massachusetts, we skipped the typically time-consuming exercise of creating a mission statement and went with what is almost a tag line: “Historic preservation, education, and celebration in Marlborough.” It clearly states the three things we focus on, in priority order, and we weave into articles, fliers, and posters.

    Certainly for an organization that is in a community that faces more competition for mindshare, a statement such as the one we use would be insufficient to explain how one organization is different than another, or how one is relevant to a larger audience beyond the local community.

    Your presentation will no doubt spark discussion and, judging by your title, bolder efforts on the part of organizations to figure out why their organization really matters to their audience and community.

    Look forward to reading more after your present.


  3. Randi Korn

    I think mission statements need companion statements–and I suggest that museum develop Impact Statements. Mission statements describe what a museum does, and Max and others are correct; they often do not reveal anything distinct about the organization. And they seem woefully out of date. Impact Statements describe the RESULT of the museum’s work on audiences served. Impact Statements can be a museum’s response to the museum community’s need to make a difference in people’s lives. If museums become focused on achieving measurable impact in addition to living their missions, museums might be do well in the 21st Century.


  4. Michelle Zupan

    Thanks, Max — great topic and excellent points. Museums, especially house museums, are effectively limiting themselves and how they can interact with their public by confining themselves too deeply within their mission statements. Impact Statements are a good start. Look at wonderful places like the Harriett Beecher Stowe House — their activities are so much MORE than interpreting Stowe and they haven’t had issues with the IRS wanting to pull their 501c3 for stepping beyond the dead white interp trap.


    1. Max van Balgooy Post author

      Thanks for the reminder about the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center’s mission statement. I often use it as a provocative example:

      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.


  5. Max van Balgooy Post author

    I received several comments on LinkedIn and I’m reposting them here so they’re all in one place publicly.

    From Tim Merriman: Hi Max, Great article on the rethinking the mission statement. We recommend fifteen words of less on length in our planning/training. If we want every worker and volunteer to remember it, it must be succinct, thoughtful and a clear statement of purpose.

    From Salvatore Cilella: Can you get it on a tee shirt? If so, then it works, otherwise dump it and start over.

    From David Grabitske: Thoughtful article, Max. I am trying very hard these days not to think too much about the mission statements of most organizations I work with. For many the “collect, preserve, interpret” works pretty well. I call those the “how” mission statements because they tell me how they do their work – appropriate for those requiring plain direction. Others use the “lofty” approach. MHS, e.g.: Using the power of history to transform lives. A third is a “measurable” – March of Dimes was a good example, though it may be unreasonable to measure the mission of history orgs that are perpetual in nature. I don’t know what the answer might be to better mission statements, but it is a worthwhile discussion.

    From Philip Seitz: And what about outspoken superheroes?

    From Salvatore Cilella: How exciting it is when the guard at the front door can not only understand it but repeat it for visitors.


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