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?