How to write a mission statement to guide and inspire

February 4, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: How-to Guides 

mission statementLet me start off by saying that I’m not a poofy, hand-holding, kumbaya kind of copywriting guy. I’m more of the roll-up your sleeves and get down to business kind of copywriting guy.

So I have a love / hate relationship with mission statements. Too often they’re an exercise in overinflated ego and empty rhetoric. (The photo is a tongue-in-cheek reference to “the vision thing” that leads some companies to write a fuzzy, self-indulgent mission statement.)

However, it is important for an organization to have a mission and that mission should be expressed in a well-written mission statement. It’s the corporate version of an elevator pitch.

Recently while writing a mission statement for one of my clients, I realized how hard it can be to express in just a few words the whole of an organization’s purpose for being. But in my usual, step-by-step approach to projects, I came up with a set of rules for how a mission statement should be written to make it useful.

It’s important to understand that a mission statement must guide and inspire. It’s a verbal road map that shows where an organization is and where it’s headed. It describes why an organization exists, what principles it adheres to, and what it strives to accomplish.

In other words, it defines the philosophy, mores, and goals of the organization. Generally, there’s a somewhat lofty tone that lifts the mission statement above the task-oriented language of most marketing. However, as I’ve already pointed out, this can easily spiral out of control and become empty rhetoric. So be careful.

Here are 4 tips for writing a good mission statement.

1. Keep it short. It should be about a paragraph. Long enough to say something, but short enough so that you can remember most of it.

Here’s an example of a mission statement from H&R Block that’s way too long:

To help our clients achieve their financial objectives by serving as their tax and financial partner. As the world’s largest tax services company, H & R Block has one-to-one relationships with millions of clients, helping them benefit from all of the deductions and credits available to them and build a better financial future. It is the only major company that offers a full range of software, online and in-office tax solutions, combined with financial information and suggestions that enable clients to consider how they could achieve their financial objectives. This advice — the H &R Block Advantage — includes suggestions about retirement savings, home ownership, saving for their children’s college education, eligibility for government programs and other alternatives. When clients request in-depth financial plans and investment advice, their H &R Block tax professional refers them to H & R Block Financial Advisors Inc., which can assist them with a detailed investment plan and investment services. H &R Block Financial Advisors, member NYSE, SIPC, employs more than 1,000 financial advisors serving clients in more than 150 offices in the U.S. H & R Block Inc. is not a registered broker-dealer. Clients who request information about home mortgages are referred to H &R Block Mortgage Corp., which offers a full range of retail mortgage products. Our research shows that our H &R Block Advantage advice package along with related financial services increased client satisfaction with H & R Block’s tax services. H & R Block has long been a trusted tax partner to millions of taxpayers. Now we are enhancing the value of our tax services by helping clients as their tax and financial partner.

Wow. Did you go to sleep while reading that? I did. I’m not sure this is even a mission statement. It’s more like an “about us” web page or bad brochure copy.

Here’s an example from a nonprofit called Food Gatherers that’s short and to-the-point:

Food Gatherers exists to alleviate hunger and eliminate its causes in our community by: reducing food waste through the rescue and distribution of perishable and non-perishable food, coordinating with other hunger relief providers, educating the public about hunger, and developing new food resources.

2. Stay focused. A mission statement should not be a comprehensive business plan. It should briefly outline philosophy, mores, and goals and nothing else. These are guiding principles. The H&R Block example above is an example of a mission statement that strays too far beyond principles.

Here’s an example of a focused mission statement from CFCU Credit Union:

To provide the highest level of personal financial services in a friendly, professional manner; to encourage thrift, savings and the wise use of credit; to increase the knowledge and ability of our members to manage and control their financial well-being; to provide sound financial management in order to maintain earnings for our continued growth and to provide our employees with a challenging and rewarding career.

3. Be specific. A mission statement should be descriptive and actionable. Customers or clients should understand what the organization is saying. And employees should understand what they’re supposed to do.

Here’s a laughably unspecific example from Ninety Nine Restaurant:

A Passion to Serve.

I have no idea what that means. Maybe it’s a joke, because restaurants “serve.” Maybe whoever wrote it was just lazy. Either way, it’s vague and useless.

Here’s a much more specific example from Brannigans:

To ensure that each guest receives prompt, professional, friendly and courteous service. To maintain a clean, comfortable and well maintained premises for our guests and staff. To provide at a fair price – nutritional, well-prepared meals – using only quality ingredients. To ensure that all guests and staff are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. To thank each guest for the opportunity to serve them. By maintaining these objectives we shall be assured of a fair profit that will allow us to contribute to the community we serve.

4. Make it inspirational. This is the emotional element you need to infuse into your mission statement copy. If you write something short, focused, and specific, you have already out-written 90 percent of other mission statements. But if you can also make it inspirational, you’ll put it over the top.

Here’s an example from Denny’s Restaurant that really falls flat:

Our Mission at Denny’s is to establish beneficial business relationships with diverse suppliers who share our commitment to customer service, quality and competitive pricing.

Doesn’t exactly make you gung-ho about eating there or doing business with them.

Here’s a more inspirational example from CARE:

Our mission is to serve individuals and families in the poorest communities in the world. Drawing strength from our global diversity, resources and experience, we promote innovative solutions and are advocates for global responsibility. We facilitate lasting change by:

  • Strengthening capacity for self-help
  • Providing economic opportunity
  • Delivering relief in emergencies
  • Influencing policy decisions at all levels
  • Addressing discrimination in all its forms

Guided by the aspirations of local communities, we pursue our mission with both excellence and compassion because the people whom we serve deserve nothing less.

This mission statement runs on all cylinders. It’s short, focused, specific, and inspiration. Notice that it even uses bullet points to drive home the actionable language.

Like a lot of copywriting, writing mission statements isn’t just about how you write, but what you write. If done properly, it can be a fairly involved project. But the payoff for the organization you’re writing for is a single, simple statement that lays the groundwork for future branding, marketing, and communication.

For more examples of mission statements, good and bad, take a look at MissionStatements.com.

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Smart Comments

9 Comments on How to write a mission statement to guide and inspire

  1. Chrystal @ Happy Mothering on Feb 4th, 2010 9:23 am
  2. I couldn’t agree with your points more. I spent many years in corporate marketing and this was the same strategy I would use. Now I do a lot of freelance, also mostly corporate, and would suggest other copywriters follow the guidelines you have laid out here!
    .-= Chrystal @ Happy Mothering’s last blog … Toddler Activities: Ziploc Sorbet and Ice Cream =-.

  3. Dean Rieck on Feb 4th, 2010 9:36 am
  4. Chrystal:
    Just curious … when you write mission statements, do you write from scratch or edit copy by upper management? This can be a political process, no?

  5. Chrystal @ Happy Mothering on Feb 4th, 2010 10:33 am
  6. It depends on the organization and how upper management operates. It can definitely be a political process that everyone wants to have their hands in. But, I’ve also worked with organizations that give me free range to craft the copy from scratch. Oddly enough, I’ve found that the larger the organization is, the more upper management wants to be involved.
    .-= Chrystal @ Happy Mothering’s last blog … This is a Lesson I’m Learning Very Quickly… =-.

  7. copywriter on Feb 4th, 2010 4:50 pm
  8. Ever found all your hard work gets sliced and diced by the legal team?

  9. Dean Rieck on Feb 4th, 2010 5:06 pm
  10. Copywriter:
    That’s not happened with mission statements, but it sure has with other projects, especially when I’m working with someone in health care, software, or communications. Big, high-visibility companies are the worst for letting the legal team “write copy.”

  11. Chrystal @ Happy Mothering on Feb 5th, 2010 10:07 am
  12. I worked for a Fortune 20 health care company and EVERYTHING got diced by the legal and regulatory teams if you weren’t very careful about your wording. It’s about learning what is and is not acceptable in certain industries.
    .-= Chrystal @ Happy Mothering’s last blog … Letters to God =-.

  13. Chris on Feb 9th, 2010 6:52 pm
  14. Yeah, mission statements are tough. Sometimes they can be just right, right to the point, and well said. But so often they are too long, kinda cheesy. They are tough to write, thanks for the guidelines for writing a good one. :)
    .-= Chris’s last blog … Discount Tire Stores =-.

  15. Nikki May from Web Copywriter on Sep 28th, 2010 4:41 am
  16. Many companies tend to go overboard with their statement…with some companies wanted to include everything about their business in the mission statement. The 4 tips for writing an effective mission statement are very helpful.

    I have written mission statements for many companies, and what I have found to be strange is that when I interview the CEO, the managing director or marketing director…they all have different views on what should be included in the mission statement.

    Great piece, thanks Dean.

  17. Franck @Achat Disque Dur Externe on Feb 19th, 2012 11:46 am
  18. Really not easy to write a mission statement. Sometime we know exactly what the mission consists to, but finding word to reflect what is in our brain is very difficult.
    This post is so interesting and will definitely help businessmen, employers to well adress this mission statement.
    Thanks