Many years ago (2008), I read an article in the summer edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly by Christopher Finney about what makes a great mission statement. Permit me to share excerpts of this incisive article.
“Your organization’s mission statement deserves to be elegant, precise, and even poetic because these words embody the reason your nonprofit exists. The mission statement will be your north star when sailing stormy boardroom seas; when discussion gets contentious, we look to the mission statement for clarity.”
The Art of Simplicity
Finney goes on to explain the power of communication in the simplicity of the ancient art of Japanese Haiku.
“Poetry is reductionism at its most powerful, cutting away everything from an image except the content of a few words, but leaving its complexity intact. Haiku, the Japanese form consisting of only 3 short lines (totaling just 17 total syllables) exemplifies this reductionism.”
The Haiku of Basho
The legendary Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, defined the art of Haiku for generations of Japanese artists.
This Basho Haiku is about a particular frog that jumps into a particular pond:
furuike ya - The Old Pond
kawazu tobikomu - A frog jumps in
mizo no too - Sound of Water
With remarkable precision (the original Japanese poem includes only seven words), Basho establishes not only a concrete image, but also a sense of our fleeting impact before the immensity of the universe. Poet Chijitsuan Tosai wrote that Basho’s haiku “describes a scene exactly as the poet saw it. Not a single syllable is contrived.”
Your Mission Statement
Your organization’s mission statement must be similarly concrete. The first test of a poetic mission statement is whether it conveys the honest, uncontrived truth of the organization’s purpose. Because mission statements represent the reduction of a complex vision into a few carefully chosen words, they are similar to Japanese Haiku, poems that capture concrete images with metaphysical implications in just 17 syllables.
“Every word in your mission statement carries connotations, and those connotations must be carefully managed in order to communicate everything you want (and nothing you don’t). Basho’s frog evokes solitude and a brief moment in the long course of time; what does your mission statement evoke?” (Finney)
Let’s take a look at some of the best nonprofit mission statements and, using our own humble skills, reduce them to three lines of Haiku-like poetry. Then, you can look at your own mission statement and submit it to a similar exercise (of course, never hoping to achieve the poetic simplicity of Basho). The idea is to test the precision and power of your mission statement against the rigors of Haiku.
Mission Statement: “The mission of The Nature Conservancy is to preserve the plants, animals and natural communities that represent the diversity of life on Earth by protecting the lands and waters they need to survive.”
Haiku: PRESERVE THE PLANET
RESPECT ALL LIFE
HONOR LIFE’S HABITAT
AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION
Mission Statement: “The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”
Haiku: VALUE LIBRARIES
CRADLES TO CRAYONS
Mission Statement: “Provides children from birth through age 12, living in homeless or low-income situations, with the essential items they need to thrive – at home, at school and at play.”
Haiku: VULNERABLE CHILDREN
The Power of Simplicity
The simplicity of Haiku can extract the essence of your mission and transmit it powerfully to all stakeholders. Every ninety days take another look at your mission statement and practice the art of Haiku.