Mission Statements: Encyclopedia Edition

The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.

The Encyclopedia of Local History will issue its third edition in 2017.

Carol Kammen and Amy Wilson are preparing the third edition of the Encyclopedia of Local History for publication in early 2017 and invited me to update my entry on “Historic House Museums in the 21st Century” as well as contribute a couple new entries, including “Mission Statement.”  I’ve long been familiar with mission statements (who isn’t nowadays) but drafting this encyclopedia entry gave me a chance to step back to look at its evolving history as well as a today’s context to see what’s happening.  Here’s what I submitted (and remember, while books have been written about this topic, I have to condense it into a short summary):

Mission Statement. A mission statement describes the purpose of an organization and directs the planning, implementation, and evaluation of its programs and activities. These statements can vary as seen in these two historic sites that are adjacent to each other in Hartford, Connecticut:

  • Mark Twain House and Museum: to foster an appreciation of the legacy of Mark Twain as one of our nation’s defining cultural figures, and to demonstrate the continuing relevance of his work, life, and times.
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe Center: to preserve and interpret Stowe’s Hartford home and the Center’s historic collections, promote vibrant discussion of her life and work, and inspire commitment to social justice and positive change.

Had Twain or Stowe heard the term “mission statement” in their lifetimes, they probably would have regarded it as one of the annual reports issued by Christian missionary associations on their work in another country (such as India), among a specific group of people (such as urban orphans), or to achieve a particular objective (such as building a school). Today’s “mission statement” developed in the 1960s and has a significantly different purpose. The Ford and Carnegie foundations’ scathing critiques of the lack of rigor in business schools in 1959 resulted in a growing emphasis on management, finances, and strategic planning informed by such diverse fields as economics, psychology, sociology, engineering, and mathematics. Mission statements became part of the toolkit for corporate success by codifying the company’s ideals and providing a set of principles to guide its actions and decisions. Increased professionalization in the 1970s introduced mission statements to the museum field and by the 1990s, funders, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and professional associations were expected to have a written mission describing their purpose to the public. By 2008, the standards of the American Alliance of Museums include a mission “that states what the museum does, for whom, and why” and that “all aspects of the museum’s operations are integrated and focused on meeting its mission.” (AAM, National Standards and Best Practices for U.S. Museums, 2008).

The deployment of mission statements in thousands of businesses, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations prompted closer examinations of mission statements to determine whether they had strategic value or were an empty planning exercise. George McDaniel, executive director of Drayton Hall, observed that, “One can always tell when a mission statement has been drafted by a committee whose members do not have a unified view because the statement consists of compromised wording and is too long, clumsily phrased, and difficult to repeat.” (“At Historic Houses and Buildings: Connecting Past, Present, and Future,” in Public History: Essays from the Field, Gardner and LaPaglia, eds., 1999) Management expert Peter Drucker complained that mission statements had become “a kind of hero sandwich of good intentions” and urged clarity and simplicity. (Managing the Nonprofit Organization, 1990) Indeed, an analysis of twenty years of research on mission statements in business by Sebastian Desmidt, Anita Prinzie, and Adelien Decramer in 2011 showed that mission statements had very little positive influence on organizational performance unless they contained “no financial goals; identified an organization’s values/beliefs; defined an organization’s purpose(s), unique identity, distinctive competence/strength; and were relatively short.” (“Looking for the Value of Mission Statements: A Meta-Analysis of 20 Years of Research,” in Management Decision 49, no.3)

Although adoption of a mission statement continues to be regarded as a best practice by leaders in the field, its definition is continually evolving. The purpose of “preserving, collecting, and interpreting” among museums, archives, historical societies, and historic sites has become ubiquitous and obligatory, causing some organizations to either incorporate who they are serving and the change they hope to achieve to make their mission statements more distinctive and compelling, or to create a separate vision statement, code of ethics, or list of institutional values. Stephen Weil observed these changes in museums in 2002’s Making Museums Matter: “Over three decades, what the museum might be envisioned as offering to the public has grown from mere refreshment (the museum as carbonated beverage) to education (the museum as a site for informal learning) to nothing short of communal empowerment (the museum as an instrument for social change).” If this trend continues, history organizations may soon be following the distinctions Peter Drucker saw between the purpose of nonprofit organizations and business or government: “Business supplies either goods or services. Government controls. A business has discharged its task when the customer buys the product, pays for it, and is satisfied with it. Government has discharged its function when its policies are effective. The nonprofit institution neither supplies goods or services nor controls. Its ‘product’ is neither a pair of shoes nor an effective regulation. Its ‘product’ is a changed human being. The nonprofit institutions are human-change agents. Their ‘product’ is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.” (Managing the Nonprofit Organization, 1990)


I really wanted to stimulate a discussion about the purpose and value of mission statements, but did I go too far? Would your board object to this explanation?

4 thoughts on “Mission Statements: Encyclopedia Edition

  1. thehistorylist

    This is certainly a useful discussion. My observation: A mission statement can sometimes feel like an end in and of itself, as opposed to a means to an end. For our small, all-volunteer historical society, rather than going through a more structured process, I put forward, “Preservation, education, and celebration of Marlborough’s history.” We’ve used it as a tagline or theme in various places, and it seems to work for our purposes.


  2. Randi Korn

    Max, what about an impact statement? The result of a museum’s mission-related work on audiences. While only a handful of places have an impact statement, mission statements need companion statements to clarify why they do what they do–to make a difference in people’s lives.


  3. Katherine Kane

    Hi Max, what an interesting discussion. I particularly like the Drucker quote. A mission should identify your market and program niche, and should be a recruitment tool for board and staff. It should make it possible to focus organizational activity — ie, what to do, and what not to do. For the Stowe Center, some of the elements of our mission come from our legal documents, and some come from our key figure’s historical action so we also use an elevator version. (Please note our board-adopted language is, “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.” )


  4. thehistorylist

    There is an interesting new celebration being planned for MA/RI/NY, and Devin Marks, who is putting it together, has done an excellent job of capturing some of the elements of a mission statement, though in this case he’s presenting it in a way that’s active and relevant. I’ve included their summary below.

    425 Years: Founding Mother Anne Marbury Hutchinson
    (a birthday in three states, following the Anne Hutchinson trail)
    July 20-24, 2016: Boston, MA; Portsmouth, RI; Bronx-Eastchester, NY

    The (Boston-based) Anne Marbury Hutchinson Foundation is commemorating its namesake’s 425th with a five-day celebration in three states. The Founding Mothers Celebration event series will trace Anne Hutchinson’s path from Boston, MA (on July 20-21); to Portsmouth, RI (July 22); to Bronx-Eastchester, NY (July 23); and then back to Boston for closing events (July 24).

    The celebration is a collaborative, learning-event series organized by a number of similarly-aligned, history-loving nonprofits. The Founding Mothers Celebration’s inaugural year theme centers on the life and example of Puritan outcast and New World-changer, Anne Marbury Hutchinson (b.1591, d.1643). The purpose is to both highlight her nation-shaping contributions and springboard enthusiasm for celebrating the lives of our nation’s other courageous founding mothers—role models and mentors from our past.”


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