Turning Mission Statements Inside Out

by Susan Valentine

I am fascinated with organizational mission statements. I actually would say I am a student of missions. They can reveal much more about an institution than how it intends to change the world.
In my “mission studies” I have come to realize that as important as the message of a mission is to the external world, so too is the information you can gain when turning the mission statement inward. Reflecting on how well what we say we are trying to accomplish externally is mirrored – or not – within our organizations provides a lot of useful diagnostic information. An honest appraisal of how well we attend internally to the always- carefully- chosen- words we advertise to the world on our collateral, in our videos, on our business cards, and in our work with clients can serve as a litmus test of organizational effectiveness.
I weave this exercise into organizational assessments, strategic planning, retreats focused on bridging gaps between staff and leadership, leadership and Boards -- practically all facets of my work with organizations. Why? In large part, because I have yet to find a mission that completely stands the test of both external and internal scrutiny.  And that raises for me the issue of how we can say we will do “X” for a public and yet not be working to be sure we are attempting to live by the same values and have the same impact internally.
Granted, the purpose of missions is not to define internal values and commitment. However, I have found that in evaluations of organizational effectiveness, impact, focus, and “mission creep”, it is always enlightening to see if the “fosters” and the “educates” and the “to helps” deemed worthy of public consumption are also deemed worthy of practice within the institution. Truth be told, there is always room for improvement. 
The result of this kind of inquiry and dialogue often leads to refreshing insights about how to offer our staff some of what we are offering the public, how to develop or further develop internal training programs, and how to add to “success” indicators for assessing internal progress as well as external impact.
You will likely need to reframe the mission words a bit for internal application. For instance:

  • If an organization is “helping people help themselves,” how well is the organization allowing independent action and decision-making internally? How often does it check to see if staff has the tools and information they need to accomplish their work? How does the organization measure the impact of this mission externally and is it mimicked internally?
  • If your mission includes “helping people achieve education and workplace goals, through community partnerships,” do staff benefit from internal educational opportunities or financial support for certificate or degree coursework or assistance developing career goals? Is teamwork and collaboration modeled inside the organization?

I urge you to consider mission statements in terms of both external and internal application. Apply the same rigor to periodic evaluations of program fit with your mission, mission fit with work actually being done, and ways of measuring impact, as you do to your internal operations.

The Bottom Line:By reflecting on your mission statement to ensure you are paying the same attention to the care and nourishment of your staff and the culture within which they work as to those who benefit from your services, you will strengthen your organization internally as well as externally.

Susan Valentine is an individual and organizational change consultant specializing in organizational assessment, strategic planning, change management, and life planning. She has served as an executive in leading research and assessment and nonprofit community development organizations and as a Board member of local community and educational agencies.

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