Organizational Development

Great Mission. Bad Statement.

Why the social sector should worry more about words.

The rampant, widespread use of boring, convoluted language is costing the social sector a lot of money. Here’s why: Nonprofits are spending more to get people involved in their cause simply because no one can understand what they’re saying. The language they use to convey who they are, what they stand for, and what they do confuses donors, volunteers, staff, and board. And when people are confused, they don’t fully engage.

Luckily, this is a fixable problem, and there are three things organizations can do to solve it.

1. Create a mission statement that articulates the root problem you address.

A mission statement is a nonprofit’s lead domino: It sets everything else in motion. Organizations feature them prominently on their websites and in brochures. It has a starring role in grant proposals and at events. Board and staff proudly recite it when someone asks what the organization does.

There’s nothing wrong with an organization featuring its mission statement. The problem is featuring a mission statement that no one can understand. Unfortunately, incomprehensibility is too often the norm.

One of the best tools for making a mission statement easier to understand is the Flesch reading-ease test, which tells you how easy, or hard, something is to understand—roughly from 0-100, where higher numbers indicating greater readability.

Take an example. In their article “Mission Matters Most,” Kim Jonker and William F. Meehan discuss the importance of a hyper-focused mission statement, and explain how the Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) went from having a mission statement that was half a page long to the following pared-down version:

AIL provides education, training, and health services to vulnerable Afghan women and children in order to foster self-reliance, critical thinking skills, and community participation throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan.

While this version is certainly shorter than the original, it gets a zero for reading ease according to the Flesch test. This alternative, even more succinct, gets a score of 42.5:

AIL improves the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children through education, training, and health services.

AIL leaders (and Jonker and Meehan) might argue that by leaving off the last part of the original mission statement, the statement doesn’t fully convey the organization’s mission. That may be true. But if you tell someone everything, they generally remember nothing. Less is more.

2. Expand your linguistic repertoire.

Research on novelty from Stanford Professor Russell Poldrack and others infers that organizations can get more people to pay attention by using words that others aren’t using.

Yet after analyzing the words on 2,503 nonprofit websites (which offer excellent insight into broader language usage), I learned that nonprofits are availing themselves of a mere five percent of the more than one million words in the English language. That leaves 95 percent of all English words—words capable of piquing and keeping people’s interest—unused.

One resource for finding new and interesting words is a free tool I designed to help nonprofits expand their vocabularies: The Wordifier. To see how it works, let’s revisit the AIL example, noting the following bolded words:

AIL improves the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children through education, training, and health services.

By putting each word into The Wordifier, we learn that the bolded words are all in the top one percent of words nonprofits use on their websites. To stand out, AIL might consider finding some alternatives to those words, starting with the verbs, which brings me to the next point...

3. Use better verbs.

Verbs are action words. They are especially important in nonprofit messaging because they represent the change an organization is making in the world. Unfortunately, nonprofits often use terribly boring verbs to describe their amazing work!

Based on our research, top verbs nonprofits use are: support, make, and provide.

Support works as both a noun (“Your support is invaluable”) and a verb (“Please support us”), which bumps up its frequency. Make shows up in two of the most common phrases nonprofits use: “Make a donation” and “make a difference.” So it’s not surprising that the term appears on approximately 75 percent of all nonprofit websites.

That brings us to provide. Putting this verb front and center pretty much assures that no one will notice the change you are creating—68 percent of nonprofit websites use it, including AIL.

In the rework above, I chose improve as the verb—which only 33 percent of nonprofit websites use. But a more-unique option might be:

AIL betters the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children through education, training, and health services.

Betters (as a verb) appears on only 0.1 percent of nonprofit websites, making it a “better” choice for getting people’s attention.

Ideally, all nonprofits would have a mission statement that is concise, compelling, and readily repeatable—a statement that could proudly serve as the lead domino for all messaging. But with or without a mission statement overhaul, nonprofits would benefit from aiming for high reading-ease scores in all their communications, from availing themselves of the 95 percent of words other nonprofits aren’t using, and from finding  more interesting verbs to explain what they do and why they do it.

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  • Hey Erica! I really appreciate the specific advice you gave - specifically about better word choice. “Provide” is more common and less helpful than I thought.

  • Network for Good just reported, 30% of charitable contributions were donated this year happened between December. While that is a huge amount. It makes me wonder how better language and more concise mission statements could help nonprofits boost their fundraising during the other 11 months of the year.

  • This is great advice.  I believe it can be quality powerful outside of the non-profit sector such as the engineering and technology world where communication is historically undervalued.

  • Great article. Advice about good communication always runs the risk of hypocrisy and this post got it right.

    I’d love to see an organization experiment with its mission statement. Website viewers could get randomly assigned to the regular statement or a re-written one and they track donations from the two (or more) groups!

  • Great advice! I’d like to throw in my own pet peeve tired verb: use. Wordifier gives it a STOP rating, and that’s good advice. There’s almost always a more specific, meaningful, and memorable verb available.

  • Ash Shepherd's avatar

    BY Ash Shepherd

    ON January 15, 2016 02:06 PM

    So true on many of these points. For years I have had the conversation of asking what do you do as an organization. I usually get the rehearsed mission statement. I forget what I am hearing/reading as quick as it comes in and and am still left with the questions of “Yah, but what do you DO?”

    At this point I don’t even look for mission statements because they tell me nothing of what I care about, issues, causes and intended change in the world. In particular I like your suggestion to focus on better verbs. This helps convey much quicker what it is the organization actually does and what my point of connection might be.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Deborah Jacobs's avatar

    BY Deborah Jacobs

    ON January 15, 2016 02:08 PM

    This is great practical advice for any non-profit in its mission statement and all writing. Economic, focused writing is more important than ever in this age of short attention spans.

  • Research has shown people have better recall of content written in a hard to read font and I suspect use of less common words would have a similar effect. There can be a trade-off between novel, interesting language use and reading ease. I see a lot of advice to just make things easier to read, but I think a thoughtful strategy is more nuanced. Statements about the core of what you do and who you are as an organization must be memorable as well comprehendible. The advice in this article strikes a good balance.

    @David - love it! More research is definitely needed.

  • I wholeheartedly second the “less is more” advice. What do you want people to do when they hear your mission? Get engaged - connect with your organization. If you have a very-short but very-intriguing mission statement, it can pique people’s curiosity. Heck - you might even aspire to amuse them for a second each time they see your mission! What if AIL’s mission was “Co-Creating inspiring futures for Afghan women and children” - then the reader asks, “How? Why? When?” - all great questions that give the organization a great chance for dialog with someone.

  • We’ve all been in that meeting….with that one guy…who talks circles and circles around the topic using “buzz” words to sound informed. What he doesn’t realize is that everyone else in the room has either quit listening or they are making a drinking game out of how many time he uses the word “impact” with their neighbor.

    Much like what “that guy” is trying to communicate, mission statements are getting lost in a sea of overused words and uninformative language. In a time where we are bombarded with messaging from every angle, we are missing out on opportunity to connect with and attract donors.

  • Thank you for providing an article that I can use with my organization to highlight an issue we can’t seem to get around - how to talk about what we do so people care as much as we do.  I will use this today!

  • This article is wonderful and really helpful-definitely made me think about my organization’s use of verbs!

  • Thanks Erica. As a nonprofit leader committed to radically improving the health of my community. I know language will matter IF we are going to create the kind the movement we need to achieve this audacious goal!

  • Laura Staley's avatar

    BY Laura Staley

    ON January 15, 2016 07:56 PM

    Very helpful! The Wordifier is a fantastic find.

  • The Wordifier tool is a great find!  I really appreciate the perspective on a simple, CLEAR, mission statement.

  • The suggestion here is that by using other words you can stand out of the crowd. But isn’t it better to look at words that triggers people’s attention and are clear. Only if the used words hits a saturation point, to me it seems better to use other words.

  • Excellent article. The other benefit of a clear, concise mission statement is that it can truly be guide for the organization itself. When an organization has a clear mission statement, it allows everyone who works there to make decisions and move forward according to the mission. It should always come back to the mission statement.

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 16, 2016 08:42 AM

    THANK YOU for all the wonderful comments, everyone!

    @Sarah Working on a case study now to answer that exact question! Hopefully, we’ll have answers in time for organizations to take advantage in December 2016.

    @Sarah2 The drinking game reference was hilarious…and so on point! Always tiresome to be barraged by buzz words. And, aside from being boring, it is (as you say) a huge missed opportunity.

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 16, 2016 08:44 AM

    @Dave YES to more testing! There are so many tools that make this possible these days. But when I talk to organizations about trying it, it sounds like a daunting proposition. How can we make it easy for nonprofits to do testing?

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 16, 2016 08:47 AM

    @Theron Great point about questions being a good thing! Nonprofits often try to answer every question someone might have out of the gate, rather than intentionally creating something that will invite questions. Questions are great! Appreciate you reminding us of that.

    @Amy And…I completely agree with you and yet…I used ‘used’ in the first sentence of this article. *sigh* Clearly, I could’ve found a better verb! : )

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 16, 2016 08:51 AM

    @Laura & @Melissa SO GLAD you find the Wordifier helpful! We’re doing some work on it now, so stay tuned for improvements!!

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 16, 2016 09:00 AM

    @Erwin GREAT point! Thank you. The goal is to find words that everyone else isn’t using AND that resonate (or trigger, as you said…a wonderful word choice, btw!) with your target audience. Calibrating to your audience should always be top of mind.

    I wasn’t sure what you meant in your second sentence about words reaching a saturation point. Could you clarify?

  • While I agree a mission statement must be clear and inspiring, this is a vision statement, not a mission.  A mission is a very specific thing.  It’s not a tagline, nor an elevator pitch.

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 16, 2016 10:54 AM

    @Darcy Grateful that you brought up the vision/mission distinction. There are so many ways to define each! What I have found works best for nonprofits is having a vision statement that is about your why, and a mission statement that is about your what/who/how. With those definitions, the AIL statement reads like a mission statement to me, rather than a vision statement as it explains what they do, but not necessarily why they do it. However, to @Theron’s point, it would likely inspire you to ask why, and how, and a bunch of other wonderful clarifying, conversation-inducing questions…and that’s a good thing!

    Taglines are read, not said, so completely concur that a mission statement isn’t a tagline. However, I’d push back regarding a mission statement not being an elevator pitch. If you define an elevator pitch as the response to the question, “What do you do?” (acknowledging that as with vision/mission statements, there are variety of ways to define an elevator pitch), most organizations already use their mission statement as their elevator pitch. So, why not intentionally have it work as both?

    A caveat would be organizations that have an operational mission statement, or one that is purposefully inward-facing. Those serve a different purpose. But, for the most part, nonprofits create a mission statement with a view to it resonating with those external to the organization—donors, funders, volunteers, etc—so this applies to only a small percentage of organizations.

    Would love to hear more about your thoughts on vision and mission statements! They are important, varied, and fascinating. Have you read Hildy Gottlieb’s piece “Three Statements that can Change the World”? It’s an excellent read.

    Thanks again for your comment, Darcy!

  • I have been part of and supporting an industry non-profit organization for the past few years and find that I myself have been desensitized from mass group messages from the organization.  The value of word choice as you described is critical.  Thank you for your insights and tools to create more clear and compelling messages!

  • The wordifier is a much needed tool for the non-profit sector and your advice on verbs is spot on! Thank you for submitting such a concise and “better” resource than a thesaurus. I believe that many of my clients can use this advice no matter what sector they are in.

  • BY Lori L. Jacobwith

    ON January 18, 2016 10:39 AM

    I’m a HUGE fan of word choices, as you know, Erica. I love this post and would add that action words ABOUT YOUR SUPPORTERS is as important as action words about your organization.

    I’m delighted that your Wordifier tool is available for all of us to dig into and choose clear, bold words!

  • Thanks, Erica - terrific, practical counsel! My organization has lived this experience - converting from a wordy, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink mission statement with all the tired words that weigh down your first impression like an anvil (like this one) to a short, compelling version. We connect with people in an entirely different and deeper way as a result. I would underscore a thread from several of the comments and Erica’s replies: focus on the intended audience. Choosing better words (like “trigger”) can catalyze a lasting relationship if we put ourselves in the hearts and minds of the people with whom we want to engage. What do “our people” - potential donors, volunteers and partners - care about? Otherwise, we risk making our in-house bonfire a little bigger and brighter when we can turn it into a roaring blaze.

  • The for-impact and for-profit worlds would be wise to follow Ms. Mills’ advice.  Thanks for a great example on how to defeat way too much or way too same and move us toward sparkling, heartfelt clarity. 

    I’d be curious to hear your perspective on if mission statements that are a bit more edgy are proving to be more impactful?  (Unclear how to best define “edgy,” and I was thinking about non-profits with seven figure budgets or larger.)

  • Great article! Thank you for bringing attention to the overuse of words and providing the Wordifier tool to choose less trite language!

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 18, 2016 05:25 PM

    @Lori YES to making your supporters the hero and having the organization in a supporting role! As @Mauri mentioned, audience is key. What words will inspire them to action and engagement? That’s the question.

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 18, 2016 05:30 PM

    @Simon Whether an “edgy” mission statement will work depends on who your people are. If they like edgy, that could definitely work. If, however, they aren’t edgy, I wouldn’t recommend it.

    True that organizations often get less edgy as they get bigger. However, there are lots of examples of organizations/companies staying edgy as they grow (although arguably not quite as edgy as in the early days…), e.g. Apple, Harley Davidson, etc.

    It’s not size so much as brand personality that leads you to the right tone for your mission statement and other communications.

    Hope that helps—thanks for your comments & question!

  • I’m looking forward to putting the Wordifier to good use for my org! It’s way to easy to fall back on comfortable jargon.

  • Stacy Holmes's avatar

    BY Stacy Holmes

    ON January 19, 2016 05:52 PM

    “But if you tell someone everything, they generally remember nothing. Less is more.”  So true!...and in this age I find my eyes glazing over easily since I swim in a sea of bullet points and sound bites.  Once you have my interest (and, often, my heartstrings) then I’m willing to dig deeper and find out more about how you are improving the lives of vulnerable Afghan women and children. Great resource, thank you!

  • Amy Allsopp's avatar

    BY Amy Allsopp

    ON January 19, 2016 05:53 PM

    Thanks, Erica - love this bit “A mission statement is a nonprofit’s lead domino”

  • Lynn Juniel's avatar

    BY Lynn Juniel

    ON January 20, 2016 01:32 PM

    Phenomenal article that will be attached to the next email to my Board.At times, I’ve run into resistance when attempting to apply the Flesch test to documents. Thank you for the demonstrating how to transform over-long messaging into concise and compelling copy.

  • Ruth Adams's avatar

    BY Ruth Adams

    ON January 21, 2016 08:33 AM

    Can’t wait to use the Wordifier on our mission statement!

  • BY Kathleen Trotter

    ON January 21, 2016 01:03 PM

    Am insightful and useful article on mission statement development. Thanks.

  • BY Robin Stevens Payes

    ON January 21, 2016 02:17 PM

    In my work with nonprofits to improve their outreach and effectiveness, I find that many organizations equivocate in their mission. They “help” support research; or “work to find” cures. When the mission statement comes from inside the organization, it is more likely to be qualified in this way, in my experience, than when an outside branding or social marketing consultant is leading the process. I realize that the opposite of equivocation is overreach—but sure there is some happy medium between being a helper and ensuring that their mission will lead to world peace. Is there a well-defined Third Way?

  • BY Niedermeier Graphic Design

    ON January 21, 2016 04:42 PM

    Great insights, and a reminder of just how much more powerful and compelling mission statements can be when the language is concise and on point!

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 22, 2016 06:54 AM

    @Amy, @Lynn, @Ruth So glad you found the tips helpful and the Wordifier useful!

    @Dana Way too easy to fall back into bad habits! I have bad writing habits that irk me daily. #StayStrong

    @Niedermeier I often wonder what the visual equivalent to a mission statement would be. The logo seems the logical choice, but not sure that’s quite right. Regardless, thanks for your comment!

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 22, 2016 06:57 AM

    @Stacy I’m so glad you brought up the head/heart connection! Rarely does one OR the other on its own do the trick when it comes to engagement. There’s much art (and science) to striking the right balance. This is why I’m so fond of Network for Good’s pieces: “Homer Simpson for Nonprofits” and “Lisa Simpson for Nonprofits”. Both fantastic on this topic! (Links below should you want to peruse.)

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 22, 2016 07:19 AM

    @Robin First off, thank you for using the word “equivocate”. Great word (fun to say!) and a great question.

    The issue you raise is the classic contribution/attribution conundrum. Organizations add qualifiers (e.g. try, work, endeavor) because, as you say, the organization doesn’t want to overstate its impact. The concern is that someone will think the organization is claiming to be wholly responsible for their impact if the qualifier isn’t there. Put another way, they fear they will be perceived as claiming full attribution for solving the issue they address. This feels inaccurate and flies in the face of the social sector’s collaborative nature.

    I’ve written about this a bit (see link below) and it warrants more attention because equivocation isn’t engaging. It usually comes across as a lack of confidence, which doesn’t instill trust. And trust is currency for social sector organizations.

    My advice: Don’t use qualifiers. People know that one organization isn’t wiping out malaria, educating every child, caring for every senior, protecting every forest, etc all on their own. The issues social sector organizations take on are too big for one organization to go it alone.

    Instead, clearly and concisely state what you do, knowing that if that’s of interest to someone, they will ask questions and you will be able to explain the nuances of your contribution to your cause.

    This is one of the BIG issues I see with messaging in the social sector, so thank YOU for bringing it up! I’ll definitely make a point to write more about it.

    Here’s the post where I address it a bit:

  • BY Maile Lono-Batura

    ON January 22, 2016 04:13 PM

    I’ve got mad respect for SSIR and all of the thought provoking articles they present - so big congrats on getting your important work published here.  Love this statement, ‘But if you tell someone everything, they generally remember nothing. Less is more.’

    It would’ve been nice to blend in the place of pitches for nonprofits and how these can be a springboard towards powerful mission statements. I know that your work with our organization really shifted our ‘organization in the world’ moment to better relay the importance of what we do to the masses. 

    Keep up the incredible work!

  • BY Manjit Singh

    ON January 25, 2016 10:56 AM

    Great article and advise. So insightful. Thank you for writing and for links to hand tools. I just shared it with my entire non-profit board.

  • BY Robin Stevens Payes

    ON January 25, 2016 01:22 PM

    @Erica Thanks for highlighting the contribution/attribution effect (that term is new for me—like it!). While this isn’t specifically about mission, it does make it difficult to create overall messaging: I work a lot with scientists in academic institutions and government who won’t extrapolate beyond whatever narrow findings their research “might” suggest. And then there’s the other extreme: they take credit for findings not supported by the research. In the former case, it’s caution to maintain peer credibility; in the latter, about celebrity (and many times, loss of peer credibility). There seems to be very little room for maneuvering in between.

  • so glad to see this article! Ive been trying to get my organisation to understand this and they just wont. Im glad to see someone put it into an easily understandable way. Thanks so much for confirming Im not crazy thinking this as well haha.

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 25, 2016 06:34 PM

    @maile Yes, more on the relationship between pitches and mission statements is clearly needed! In a perfect world, they’d be one and the same…or at least extremely close. Appreciate you pushing me to make that clearer!

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 25, 2016 06:36 PM

    @Manjit Glad you found the article, and links/tools, useful. I’d love to hear the reaction/feedback from you board. Their perspective is often unique when it comes to this topic!

    @Renee You are not crazy! It’s hard to make something simple. Hopefully this article will give you a few specific ways in which you might shift the tide at your organisation. Let me know how it goes!

  • Erica Mills's avatar

    BY Erica Mills

    ON January 25, 2016 06:44 PM

    @Robin Having worked first-hand with academics/researchers, I feel you on this. It’s tough for everyone. You might ask them to place their work on the attribution/contribution continuum. It opens up some room to navigate in between the two extremes. Let me know if that helps!

  • seattledrury's avatar

    BY seattledrury

    ON January 26, 2016 04:14 PM

    Excellent. Timely. And timeless. Love this post ~ So glad SSIR does, too. Love the statement, “When you tell people everything, they remember nothing.” Less is more, indeed! Here’s to hoping a great number of nonprofit leaders (communicators) take you seriously!

  • BY Melanie Kadlic Meren

    ON January 27, 2016 08:34 AM

    Very timely for work I’m doing with an education nonprofit. The instinct is to tell the full story, but the reality is that less is more. Thanks for introducing me to your Wordifier. I’m hooked! Looking forward to learning more.

  • Excellent article with simple, practical and thought-provoking advice. As a communicator at a charity, this is insight that should be considered and shared. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  • Megan Morris's avatar

    BY Megan Morris

    ON February 2, 2016 02:53 PM

    Great article! The wordifier is such an awesome tool. I hope that mission statements become more easily understood as a result of your work!

  • BY David Arias

    ON February 18, 2016 03:10 PM

    We help end hunger by recovering excess food and delivering it to agencies that serve those in need.
    BOOM!  Flesch test 66.4 8.5 grade “recovering” is difficult but necessary.

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