David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Writing key statements (mission, vision, values) is a delicate business, and there is much – often differing – advice online. The views expressed in this series are informed by the broad and specific experience of Minnesota’s historical organizations, and may not necessarily match every organization.
Done well, mission statements communicate succinctly and clearly the organization’s purpose. Unimaginative or out-of-date mission statements can cause confusion, or worse can suggest that the organization is irrelevant on account of perceived passivity. Many modern historical society mission statements often create additional challenges by imposing unnecessary limitations through expressions of what, how or for whom.
How did we arrive at unimaginative, out-of-date, or limiting mission statements? Why don’t many historical organizations have vision or values statements?
In 1922 the Minnesota Historical Society produced a standard template mission statement for historical organizations:
The objects of the _________ Society shall be the discovery, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge about the history of ________ County and the State of Minnesota, more particularly its objects shall be:
Sec. 1: To discover and collect any material which may help establish or illustrate the history the county or state, their exploration, settlement, development and activities in peace and war and their progress in population, wealth, education, arts, science, agriculture, manufactures, trade and transportation, printed material such as histories, genealogies, biographies, descriptions, gazetteers, directories, newspapers, pamphlets, catalogues, circulars, handbills, programs and posters; manuscript material such as letters, diaries, journals, memoranda, reminiscences, rosters, service records, account books; and museum material such as pictures, photographs, paintings, portraits, scenes, aboriginal relics and material objects illustrative of life, conditions, events and activities in the past or present.
Sec. 2: To provide for the preservation of such material and for its accessibility, as far as may be feasible, to all who wish to examine or study it; to cooperate with officials in insuring the preservation and accessibility of the records and archives of the county and its towns, villages and institutions; and to bring about the preservation of historic buildings, monuments, and markers.
Sec. 3: To disseminate historical information and arouse interest in the past by publishing historical information and material in the newspapers or otherwise; by holding meetings and addresses, lectures, papers and discussion; and by marking historical buildings, sites, and trails.
Solon Buck wrote this standard mission statement to help those that wanted to know more about the important work of history. Many organizations in Minnesota to this day are still using this historic 1922 mission statement or one of the several updates to it, all of which contain some vision and values. Modern mission statements, however, are more about the motivating purpose than “what, how, or for whom” of our work, and vision and values state the public use of and define the approach to the mission.
At the Spring 2009 Local History Workshops we were encouraged to rethink our key statements to meet the needs of the twenty-first century. Some organizations have reported how hard it is to convince funders of their worth when they are pitted against social organizations. One even stated that an elected official asked why he should support the historical organization when the requested allocation could help put another K-9 police unit on the street or expand services for a battered woman’s shelter. All three are actually very important to the public’s quality of life.
Local historical organizations are worth every penny and more. In order to demonstrate that worth, historical organizations need to mature their mission-vision-values statements to meet the twenty-first century.
What would stronger key statements look like? Each organization should have statements that reflect local conditions, but I might suggest as a place to start this discussion, the following:
Mission: The [History Entity] improves people’s quality of life by preserving the present and the past.
Vision: Specifically, this organization:
1. Informs sound public policy through the direct experience of the past.
2. Provides a neutral healing environment for people to address the affects of events on their lives.
3. Empowers people to make solid civic and environmental choices.
4. Enables understanding of today.
The organization will faithfully and patiently coach the public to incorporate history as an equal value in its consideration of important civic and environmental issues.
The organization will constantly capture and preserve history as it happens in order to provide accurate, complete, honest, and publicly accessible information for future users.
The organization will strive to meet, adapt, and apply professional guidance in every aspect of its work.
The organization will strategically apply its limited resources to leverage its vision.
In the coming weeks we’ll take a look at the nature of mission, vision and values statements. Then we’ll discuss the four suggested vision statements, which are meant to be outcomes, and that are based on some excellent examples from Minnesota historical organizations. And finally we’ll discuss the values that underpin our intent and likewise come from the collective experience of Minnesota historical organizations.
Feel free to post your mission, vision, or values statements here. Also, it would be good to hear from those that have recently updated their key statements on specific challenges faced in the process.
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