Mission Statements are like first impressions: In an instant, a reader will judge your organization by these few words. A good mission statement both summarizes and guides the work a nonprofit does. Very often, these little blurbs are the first point of entry for funders. The mission statement will very often be the first text a grant reader sees. A sloppy text is tantamount to showing up to a job interview in dirty, unkempt clothes. Not only must a mission statement be clear, it must also be accurate. “Mission creep” happens when organizations gradually shift their objectives away from their original goals, and their work no longer lines up with their stated purpose. Mission statements reveal how well arts administrators understand the work they do, so it’s important for organizations to check in periodically to make sure they stay on target.
For this Artspeak column, I looked at mission statements from arts nonprofits in the South. Texts were judged on two criteria: clarity and character. Ten points possible. Clarity is the nuts and bolts of the text itself. Does it make sense? Is it accurate? Is it well written? Character is the text’s ability to reflect the culture of the organization. You wouldn’t want a youth-driven arts organization to have a stilted, formal mission statement; you wouldn’t want a staid arts organization to have a hip-sounding mission either. Every word counts, and I’ll break down what every mission statement is … or isn’t … doing.
C4 Atlanta: 10
C4 Atlanta connects arts entrepreneurs to the people, skills and tools they need to build a successful artistic career in metro Atlanta.
This mission statement is perfect. The action verb “connects” encapsulates everything C4 does, and starts the mission statement really well. The predicate of the sentence further exemplifies what C4 does, in a vivid and clear way. I understand that C4 focuses on professional development for artists in metro Atlanta. Not only is this statement well written, it has great character too. The text reads as business-like, but not overly formal, and this reflects C4 as well.
Atlanta Contemporary: 9
Atlanta Contemporary engages the public through the creation, presentation and advancement of contemporary art.
Technically, the mission statement for Atlanta Contemporary is good; however, it is so bland that I’m yawning by the end of it. The text does a great job of summarizing, in a clear way, what exactly they do. The action verb “engage” works well. But the statement seems incredibly uncreative and uninteresting for what should be the coolest organization in town.
Let’s Fix This:
Atlanta Contemporary links the community to the national art scene by commissioning and exhibiting cutting-edge contemporary art.
1708 Gallery: 8
1708 Gallery’s mission is to present exceptional new art. 1708 Gallery is committed to providing opportunities for artistic innovation for emerging and established artists and to expanding the understanding and appreciation of new art for the public.
This one seems really earnest, if not a bit clunky and out-of-balance. The first sentence is short and to-the-point. The second one is long-winded and a bit wide-eyed. Both sentences have “is” as their verb so neither is particularly dynamic. The mission statement comes across very clearly, but the structure gets in the way of taking 1708 Gallery seriously. Also, you don’t need to remind us “mission is to” in your own mission statement. We get that.
Let’s Fix This:
1708 Gallery presents exceptional new art by emerging and established artists in order to expand the public’s appreciation for artistic innovation.
MOCA GA: 7
MOCA GA’s mission is to collect and archive significant contemporary works by artists living and working in the state of Georgia. Our programs promote the visual arts by creating a forum for active interchange between artists and the surrounding community. Through avenues of advocacy, awareness, and accessibility, the museum also serves as a platform to launch local artists and their works into the global artistic conversation.
This mission statement is simply too long. Ideally, you want to get your mission statement down to one sentence, perhaps two if you’re extremely important. But, I’m sorry MOCA GA, you don’t deserve three sentences for your mission statement. You need to edit. This sentence is useless: Our programs promote the visual arts by creating a forum for active interchange between artists and the surrounding community. These words mean nothing, and are scattered in the middle of the mission statement like a pile of dead bodies.
Let’s Fix This:
MOCA GA promotes the visual arts in Georgia by collecting and archiving works, as well as giving local artists the platform to launch themselves into a global artistic conversation.
Living Walls: 6
Living Walls seeks to promote, educate and change perspectives about public space in our communities via street art.
The structure of this mission statement creates a weak, unclear sentence. The verb phrase commits one of my writing pet peeves: the verb-infinitive combo. Here it is not just “seeks to” plus a second verb, because this one has three with “promote, educate and change.” What I dislike about the “seeks to” part is that it makes it seem like Living Walls isn’t actually doing anything … only seeking to. Ultimately, the “seeks to” part is completely superfluous to the sentence. Beyond that, I’m not a fan of the “promote, educate and change perspectives” part either; there’s too much going on in there and it’s unclear what is actually being done. Finally, the sentence waits until the very end to say “street art,” which is what Living Walls is ostensibly all about.
Let’s Fix This:
Living Walls promotes street art as a means to enliven public spaces and create public investment in the work artists do.
WonderRoot is an Atlanta-based nonprofit arts and service organization with a mission to unite artists and community to inspire positive social change.
From reading this sentence, I could not tell you what WonderRoot is or does. This mission statement is so vague that it seems to say nothing about WonderRoot. How do they “unite artists and community” in order to “inspire positive social change”? Those phrases could literally mean anything. Is WonderRoot an advocacy organization? Do they make art? Do they donate art to the community? Also, the writing here is really weak. The use of the be-verb “is” creates a boring, insipidly constructed sentence. Also, why does the mission statement have to add “with a mission” in the middle of it? Those words don’t need to be there.
Let’s fix this:
WonderRoot provides Atlanta-area artists the space, tools, and education necessary to create art in an affordable, supportive environment.
Founded in 2008, BURNAWAY is an Atlanta-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide coverage of the arts in and from Atlanta and the South, to support the vibrant creative communities in our region, to increase national recognition of our region’s artists and organizations, and to foster new voices for the arts. We fulfill this mission through our online arts publication, our Art Writers Mentorship Program, the Atlanta Art Guide, writing workshops, an annual print publication, and public talks.
BURNAWAY recognizes the importance that writers and thinkers play in supporting artist communities to promote, challenge, and propel them forward. Our editorial and programmatic content strives to provide coverage that reflects the geographic, demographic, and artistic diversity of the region. BURNAWAY exists to continue the established tradition of art criticism and uphold its highest ethical and professional standards, while also exploring the potential of new media and providing a fresh identity and perspective for arts dialogue today.
Through reviews, features, interviews, and audio and video content, BURNAWAY attempts to respond to the famous challenge issued by William Faulkner:
So vast, so limitless in capacity is man’s imagination to disperse and burn away the rubble-dross of fact and probability, leaving only truth and dream. (Requiem for a Nun, 1951)
To “disperse and burn away”—a statement about the nature of creativity that compels us to look beyond what merely is and envision what could be.
Somewhere, buried in the “About” text on BURNAWAY is a mission statement; however, I can’t seem to find it. Mission statements should be clearly marked on an arts organization’s website. I’ve noticed several organizations with lengthy descriptions, but no clear mission statement (I’m looking at you Atlanta Celebrates Photography and MINT Gallery!). I imagine that the lead sentence is the mission statement, even though it isn’t clearly marked: BURNAWAY is an Atlanta-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide coverage of the arts in and from Atlanta and the South, to support the vibrant creative communities in our region, to increase national recognition of our region’s artists and organizations, and to foster new voices for the arts.
So much redundancy here to fix! 501(c)(3) and nonprofit mean the same thing. You don’t need both. “Whose mission is to provide” stands as unnecessary fluff language. The list of “what BURNAWAY does” is not bad, but is incredibly wordy. All these infinitive phrases use way too many words to get to their point. Also, the phrases are vague in what they really mean, and the rest of the sentences in this “About” page expand on the opening sentence’s meaning. It takes way too long to get to the meat of this statement, and you’ve lost me as a reader halfway through.
Let’s Fix This:
BURNAWAY supports the growth of a vibrant Southern arts community by providing cutting-edge criticism, professional development workshops, and publications about the arts.
[Editor’s note: BURNAWAY is in the midst of refining our mission statement. Thanks Matt!]
So, organizations, if you can’t remember the last time you updated your mission statement (or if you can’t even say it or point to it online), it’s probably time reexamine it. Start by asking these questions:
1. What do we do that is unique to our organization, that makes our work important?
2. What kind of impact do we create in our community?
3. What is the character or spirit of our organization, and how does it come across?
Craft a concise mission statements that demonstrates the broad strokes of your work and your community impact, but written in a way that reflects the character of your organization. Give yourself one sentence to state it (two if you’re badass), and avoid semicolons, odd clauses, and otherwise complex construction that may bog down your writing. Mission statements must be clear, concise, and have character. Make your first impression a good one!
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.