NGOs need a good mission statement

“The Heart of Your Organisation” – Professor Dennis Rich explains why NGOs need a mission


Speaking at the Higher School of Economics (VShE), Professor Dennis Rich highlighted the importance of every NGO establishing its own mission, incorporating it into a clear mission statement and communicating it to their target audience.

Professor Rich is from the Faculty for Business and Enterprise at Columbia College (Chicago, USA) and specialises in managing cultural projects, marketing and external finance.  His lecture was entitled “Modern trends in fundraising for NGOs”.

What exactly is an organisation’s mission and why does an NGO need one?

Professor Rich explained that a mission is a way of conveying an organisation’s message to the world and showing what it stands for.  The fundamental role of an NGO is to implement that mission.  This is the key difference between an NGO and a commercial enterprise.

The mission of any organisation, including NGOs, should be a clear statement showing why the company or the charity exists.

A good mission statement lays the foundation for an NGO, it conveys its main objectives and explains how it intends to achieve them, it gives details of the services it offers and the people and places it serves.

A clearly expressed mission should be a tool for attracting volunteers and staff.  Every potential employee should be able to compare the values of the NGO against their own and decide whether it is the right organisation for them or not.  A good mission statement should also help investors decide whether an organisation is the right place to invest their money and ensure that an organisation chooses investors who are the right ‘fit’ in terms of their outlook.  A mission helps NGOs to perform their work and creates the right climate for innovation and investment.

Good mission statement, bad mission statement

The mission should remain unchanged for many years; it should not be changed every year or so.  The wording should be sufficiently broad to allow for the company to grow but also enable staff to focus on clearly defined goals.

A bad mission statement is one that makes no clear distinction between the NGO and any other organisation in the same line of work.  The statement should be brief, clear and powerfully expressed.  It should also sound good, be easy to repeat, be memorable, inspiring and instantly thought-provoking, in terms of arousing the interest and possibly the surprise of the general public.

If a mission statement is too long or boring it is unlikely to attract public interest or encourage other companies to work with it.  The statement should also avoid jargon and technical terminology, so it can be clearly understood by most ordinary people.

The mission should, in the Professor’s words, be at the heart of the organisation.  If circumstances change, then the strategy may change but not the mission.  The mission should also reflect the needs of the environment where it operates, so it can serve the people it is intended to serve.

Every single member of staff at an NGO should understand the mission.  Sometimes a particular individual leading an NGO becomes a source of inspiration for others and then, effectively, he or she becomes the mission.  This is a dangerous path to go down: if anything happened to the leader, the organisation would simply fold.  It is therefore essential that everyone employed by the NGO understands its vision and supports it wholeheartedly.

What are the risks?

One of the risks that NGOs face is that the mission evolves into something new.  This tends to happen if one of the NGO’s backers starts to put pressure on it.

Governments began to focus on the funding of NGOs during the 1990s.  NGOs as a whole in the USA receive only 5% of their funding from the American government; in Russia the government is the main source of finance for NGOs.

The reality is that NGOs are heavily dependent on profits from other sources, including the profits of their sponsors, and this can lead to a sponsor unduly influencing the direction of an NGO, possibly because it has a particular interest in changing the NGO’s mission.  As a consequence, the NGO can end up shifting the focus of its activity to areas unrelated to its core business.  Once a sponsor begins to dictate its terms, the NGO should walk away from the money.

Under financial pressure an NGO is sometimes forced to alter its mission but the short-term financial needs of an NGO cannot be the justification for changing its mission.  The NGO has to resist the appeal of money if it means abandoning its core mission. Once an NGO focuses only on bringing in money then it ceases to be an NGO.

How do NGOs ensure they stick to their mission?

NGOs need to stay true to their mission.  They need to identify the social values they wish to defend and make them clear to their sponsors, including their government backers.  NGOs should employ people as fundraisers and invite them to examine the NGO’s work and meet the people who use their services to get an understanding of the benefit they bring.  It is very important that investors, including government authorities, know what NGOs are achieving and why their services are important to their community.

Describing his involvement with a theatre, Professor Rich said he had invited staff from the Ministry to watch a performance so they appreciated the work of the theatre and were willing to continue their support for it.

The above is an excerpt from Professor Rich’s eighth lecture at the Summer School, entitled “The Foundations for the Development of NGOs in Russia and overseas: innovative approaches and success stories”.  The lecture series was organised by the Higher Schools of Economics’ Research Centre for Civil Society and the Charity Sector.



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