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5 Tips for Writing a Mission Statement that Doesn't Suck


New Year. New You. New Mission.

As the month of January reaches its blizzardy conclusion, let's check in and see how those New Year's resolutions are holding up. Well, maybe you haven't exactly joined a gym or learned Spanish or finished reading Infinite Jest yet, but I'd like to slip in one more resolution for all you arts entrepreneurs out there to consider.

Re-visit your mission statement. Or, you know, write one to begin with.

Lots of artists and arts organizations seize the New Year as an opportunity to take stock of what's working for them and what's not. And so often, one thing that's not working is their mission statement.

Here's the deal. If you're an artist trying to make a business of your craft, I get it, writing a mission statement can seem like a waste of time in the grand scheme of all that you do. But I'm here to both remind you that it is important, like eating your vegetables, and hopefully give you some tips to keep your mission from sucking too much. So who needs a mission statement? I'm of the mind that, whether you're an individual artist, a loosely-organized arts collective, or a larger company churning out lots of work, the answer is YOU. All artists who create work intended for public consumption (so, you know, artists) and want to go into business for themselves (so, smart artists) should have a mission, for a few reasons.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can't be all things for all people. You should, however, be able to articulate which things you can be and for which people. Articulating this coherently is, more or less, your mission statement, but let's talk about exactly how to move forward.

  1. Answer the right questions.
    If your mission statement were to have a plot, it would be the story of you identifying a specific need in your community and then meeting that need in your own special way. Really, your mission should answer these three questions:

    • What are you doing? (classical theater, documentary film, ballet instruction, punk-rock, abstract sculpture, etc.)

    • For whom? (under-served youth in your neighborhood, nursing home residents, art-lovers in Boise, etc.)

    • How are you doing it better than anyone else?

    And that third question, my friends, is the real kicker. Some mission statements can get away with not answering this, but it's the special sauce that can give your mission some wow factor. This should offer insight into the reason why you're in business and what you really want the world to think of you.

    Here's a hypothetical mission statement that I literally just made up that answers these questions: "Christopher Square Journal is a nonprofit literary magazine dedicated to publishing the creative writing of LGBT homeless youth. 100% of our sales go to pay our young writers for their work." VoilĂ !

  2. Keep it simple, silly.
    Here are two things that your mission statement doesn't need to be:

    • A manifesto - Leave that for Karl Marx. There's a special group of artists (probably those who have had their ego bruised one time too many) who take their mission statements as an opportunity to tell the world exactly what they think is wrong with it. Almost all such manifestos can be reduced to the following: "The work made by today's [insert discipline here] artists is too derivative ... or commercial ... or too (forgive me J.D. Salinger) phony."

    • A creative writing exercise - Now is not the time to show off your chops as an author and take your readers on a word journey. By all means, DO NOT tell a story. Readers crave conciseness. Seriously, can you get it down to one or two sentences? Don't ask a question in your mission statement or start it with something like "Imagine a world..." There are missions out there like "Do you remember the last time a painting made you hungry?" or "Imagine a world where we produced opera for puppies." Mission statements like these invite me to respond "No, thank you," and "I'll pass."

  3. Avoid jargon.
    Along the same lines, everyone's going to like your mission statement so much more if it's plainspoken. With each passing year, a new crop of buzzwords grows up from the fertile land of composted grant proposals and annual reports. These buzzwords, however, are GMOs! You want the words you use in your mission to be 100% organic. If you had to explain what you do to your grandma, what words would you use? This territory has been well-trod and I have little new ground to cover except to link you to some lists of words to avoid here, here, and here.

  4. Know who it's for.
    Bad missions usually demonstrate a serious misunderstanding of who exactly is meant to read them. So while it may seem obvious, I'd like to break down the three groups of people you're writing this for.

    • Your constituency - Or your audience, your customers, whatever you want to call them. These are the people for whose direct benefit your art is intended. They need to know what you're all about. And in specific terms, too, so that they can imagine themselves participating. For example, "art classes for Queens residents" doesn't really cut it, but "dance instruction for adult beginners in Astoria" and I can suddenly imagine myself warming up at the ballet barre.

    • Your funders - There may be some overlap between your constituency and the people who are financially supporting your work, but not necessarily. Even if you're offering your services for free, at some point you need someone to open their wallet and fund your work. And they need to be inspired with a reason to whip out the checkbook. Funders not only want to know what you're doing (e.g. "creating music workshops for developmentally disabled youth") but also what impact you're hoping to have ("to bring this curriculum to schools without arts funding and improve these students math and reading scores.")

    • Your self - Your mission statement should provide you and/or your organization a clear direction and a baseline against which to measure your results. You need something to help you evaluate your success other than your whimsy, and your mission is that something.

  5. Don't write it in committee.
    Let's say you've got a bunch of collaborators. Maybe you're starting a film production company. It's likely that most if not all of them will want to weigh in on your mission statement. And, of course, make sure everyone's voice is heard. But then, assign one person to the task of actually drafting the mission statement. The task of writing a mission statement as a group cannot be done. Believe me - I've tried.

Phew. The assorted ramblings of a person who has read one mission statement too many. It's easy for me to criticize, but I wish you the very best of luck. So go for it! Don't let me get inside your head. Simply write a mission statement that is simultaneously short, sweet, specific, and stimulating. Good luck, my darlings.

Some further reading on this topic:

How to Create an Effective Non-Profit Mission Statement (Harvard Business Review)
What's the Real Purpose of Word-Smithing Mission Statements (Free Management Library)
How to Write a Mission Statement (Video)

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