About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In Keys Statements for Success, we looked at the evolution of mission statements for local history organizations since 1922. As noted, mission statements often reflect the era in which they are written. In 1922 with so many people new to the work of history, it was important for the mission statement to try to be all-inclusive to provide the flavor of the nature and character of the work to be performed.

Over the years, mission statements have gotten more succinct and the growing detail of the work has migrated to other media, often books and online resources. There is much debate as to length and content of modern mission statements. Some experts liken a mission statement to an “elevator speech,” something that is memorable, rich in powerful content, and can be delivered during a short elevator ride. Others suggest that mission statements should be long enough to say specifically what an organization does, but short enough to be easily remembered. In other words, more than just an advertising tagline.

In Defining Keys for Success we noted that the mission statement’s audience really is the governing authority of the organization. As Wendy Petersen-Biorn pointed out, mission statements keep boards and staff on track. And yet, keeping boards and staff on track needs to also be flexible enough to keep pace with societal change. So, a mission statement might look similar to: The [History Entity] improves people’s quality of life by preserving the present and the past.

Since historical organizations exist for the public good, boards and staff could ask themselves if a new program or project will improve anyone’s quality of life, and if so, how, all the while maintaining flexibility to evolve with society. Mission statements, while suggesting a focus and fending off distractions to the overall goal, might also be used to keep an organization from becoming irrelevant by extending the focus to remaining a public good.

Another reason for succinct, flexible mission statements is that these often appear online. Writing for the web requires brevity and scannability so that a virtual visitor can quickly make a decision about whether the site relates to them and their interests. If you develop a longer mission statement, or continue to use one that says “collect, preserve, and interpret,” consider using bullet points to improve scannability.

The bottom line for mission statements really is that they should be aspirational, guide decision makers of the organization, and work for the organization, its people and clientele. When evaluating your mission statement against these guides, what can you observe?

For those that are revising mission statements, or recently have done so, what considerations are guiding your work?

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