This 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.