Eradicating ‘Provide’

[A few weeks ago, Emily Litchfield of Northern Arizona University reached out to share a win her team had had—they had eradicated the verb ‘provide’ from their Mission Statement! I asked if she would share how they did it so we could all learn from their hard work as part of our Mini-Mission Makeover Series. Hats off to Emily and her team for a job well done!]

CSI Logo In 2009, the Institute for Future Workforce Development and the Gerontology Institute merged to become the Civic Service Institute (CSI) at Northern Arizona University. At that point, we adopted this little beauty of a Mission Statement:

The mission of CSI is linking students, AmeriCorps members, Senior Corp volunteers and others to community, educational and non-profit organizations to build, enhance, and strengthen community capacity, workforce and career development.

Yeah… I worked there and I wasn’t even sure what that meant (and I’m quite certain that none of the other employees did either). How in the world was I supposed to sell that to any potential supporters? I certainly wasn’t going to try and memorize it so I could parrot it back in a robotic fashion, preceded by a long sigh, when asked what it is that we actually “do”.

We needed help! We needed a new mantra that declared our drive, passion and experience not some rigmarole statement packed with as many words as possible. It had to be action oriented because CSI is all about movement and service and community. We needed a good verb because we don’t simply “provide” anything (see Erica’s blog post from April 3, 2014).

After a lot of hard work rearranging word order, researching synonyms, and focusing on verbs, we finally had it and we were pretty darn proud!

The Civic Service Institute (CSI) @ NAU mobilizes generations to strengthen communities through service and volunteerism.

Recently, I read Erica’s mini-mission makeover for July 17, 2014 and I had a moment of disappointment- “Mobilize has issues”?? I took a little breath and decided to celebrate our victories- our mission is miles ahead of where it was in the beginning… and we didn’t use ‘provide’.

ELitchfield Emily Litchfield is the Program Coordinator at CSI.  She enjoys playing the Ukulele and is currently studying for the GREs.

The Cure for Your Completely Incomprehensible Mission Statement

Fort Lewis CollegeAs part of our Mini-Mission Makeover series, more than 30 organizations submitted their Mission Statements for review.  Brave souls the lot of them! Sadly, most of them make almost no sense to anyone outside the organization.

If you want people to understand your Mission Statement, the first thing you should do is figure out where it lands in terms Reading Ease. There are two super simple tests for this.

  1. For the Flesch Reading Ease score, the higher the score the better. Time Magazine hovers around 52, whereas the Harvard Business Review is in the low 30’s (cuz those peeps are wicked smaht).
  2. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score says how many years of education someone needs to understand your Mission Statement. In this case, the lower the score the better. For instance, Dr. Seuss,  Master of the Monosyllabic Masterpiece, with an average score of ‘o’, managed to write book for which you need no education to totally get them. (If your’e inclined, you can learn more about both tests here.)

The following organizations submitted their Mission Statements and, sadly, are not just tough to understand but are, in fact, technically incomprehensible, i.e. no matter how many years of education you have, you won’t be able to understand them. #ugh

Sustainable Connections mission is to be the local forum where businesses come together to transform and model an economy built on sustainable practices

West Coast LEAF‘s mission is to achieve equality by changing historic patterns of systemic discrimination against women through BC based equality rights litigation, law reform, and public legal education

The mission of Scottsdale Leadership is to inform, inspire and empower leaders to champion and strengthen the interests of the community.

Pangea Giving For Global Change‘s mission is to inform and engage members in supporting the efforts of grassroots organizations in the developing world to address social, economic, and environmental issues through financial assistance, ongoing partnerships and site visits.

KMFA, Classical 89.5 is a non-profit, listener-supported radio station whose mission is to uplift, entertain and educate Central Texans by providing the best in classical music and cultural programming.

The National Churchill Museum commemorates and celebrates the life, times, and distinguished career of Sir Winston Churchill and inspires current and future leaders by his example of resilience, determination and resolution.

Colorado Alliance for Environmental Education’s mission is to serve all sectors of the Colorado Community by improving the collective effectiveness of environmental education.

How do you fix your Mission Statement if it’s completely incomprehensible?

Although not completely incomprehensibly, the Mission Statement for the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College is pretty darn low in terms of Reading Ease, as are most nonprofit Mission Statements. Let’s look at their statement as a way of seeing how you might up the readability of your Mission Statement.

AS SUBMITTED: The Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College strengthens student’s commitment to a more socially just, ecologically responsible world by connecting students with the opportunity to create change on campus and in our community. Reading Ease: 5.1, Grade Level: 20.4

FIRST REVISION—taking out some extra words: The Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College connects students with opportunities on campus and in our community to create a more just and ecologically responsible world.  Reading Ease: 12.2, Grade Level: 17.7

SECOND REVISION—translating fancy words into plain-speak: The Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College connects students with opportunities to create a more eco-friendly world. Reading Ease: 16.7, Grade Level: 14.6

THIRD REVISION—making it easier to say by rearranging verbs and cutting out syllables: The Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College creates opportunities for students to make our world a more eco-friendly place to live. Reading Ease: 40.4, Grade Level: 12.8

Is “eco-friendly” the same as “socially just and ecologically responsible”? Not exactly. But people get ‘eco-friendly’ so they might—just might—ask a question about the types of eco-friendly opportunities the Environmental Center creates and that will give them a chance to go into greater detail.

For those of you saying, “Not fair–we’re getting dinged for having a big ol’ long name!”

The name of this organization has lots of syllables. This means it will, by definition, not do as well on reading ease tests. Simply by swapping out the name for “we”, you get:

We create opportunities for students to make our world a more eco-friendly place to live. Reading Ease: 61.8, Grade Level: 8.3

61.8 and 8.3? Now we’re cooking with gas! If you have a long name, sometimes it works best to have it be its own sentence, e.g. “I work for the Environmental Center at Fort Lewis College. We create opportunities for students for make our world a more eco-friendly place to live.” Play around with it and see what flows best!

[Check out Kristina Leroux’s fab post on how to use the Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease tools in Microsoft Word on Kivi’s Nonprofit Communications Blog.]

Mini-Mission Makeover: Volunteer Center of Morgan County

Volunteer Center of Morgan County, Mission Statements, jargon, language, messagingThis post is part of our Mini-Mission Makeover series.  If you want input on your Mission Statement, submit it on Claxon’s Facebook page. THANK YOU to the wonderful people at The Volunteer Center of Morgan County for being brave enough to have your Mission Statement made over!

There’s a whole lot of mobilizing going on in nonprofit Mission Statements.  To wit, this Mission Statement submitted by Melissa Hill Dees of The Volunteer Center of Morgan County in Decatur, Alabama:

“The Volunteer Center of Morgan County, Inc. mobilizes people and resources to address the issues that are important to the community and strengthens the capacity of local organizations to meet community needs through volunteerism.”

I’m not saying this happened at the Volunteer Center of Morgan County, bu I can’t tell you the number of meetings I’ve sat in where a group focused on volunteerism is working away on their Mission and Vision Statements and–lo and behold–the heavens part and someone shouts all excited like, “We mobilize! That’s what we do! Why yes!” And everyone nods and smiles and exclaims, “Why yes, yes we do mobilize.” And everyone is very pleased because mobilized is such an action-oriented word and that feels neat because action is good. So they high-five each other and head to the pub for a post-Mission Statement-writing pint.

Mega-buzz kill moment: Mobilize has issues.

Here’s the problem with ‘mobilize’. It has very specific mind-share for English speaking North Americans. We mobilize forces or troops. Let me stop you before you go making the case for the fact that you’re mobilizing forces of volunteers–just because you can make the case for it doesn’t mean you should.

When you co-opt a word that has a strong association with another market segment–in this case military forces vs. volunteers–you’re fighting an uphill battle. Uphill battles are expensive because they take lots of resources to fight. If our brains expect a sentence to be finished in a certain way, it gives us a brain cramp when they finish differently. Brain cramps are bad when it comes to getting people involved in your work. (#BrainCrampsBad)

The other thing with ‘mobilize’ is that it doesn’t sound very appealing. Hard to imagine Pat the Potential Volunteer sitting himself down and saying, “Jinkies, I wish someone would mobilize me.” Sounds painful. Something to run away from rather than toward.

So that covers the issues with mobilize.

Another issue with the Volunteer Center of Morgan County’s Mission Statement is that it’s try to do too much for one sentence–a very, very, very common state of affairs for all Mission Statements. If you’re going to make your Mission Statement something that those outside your organization find compelling, you have to prioritize and simplify. 

I would ask the fine folks at the Volunteer Center of Morgan County the same question I asked when presenting at the Hands-On Network Affiliate Meeting: What’s the one thing that you fundamentally want to be known for?

Depending on the answer to the question above, here would be some options for the Volunteer Center of Morgan County to play around with:

We bring people together who want to make our community an even better place to live.

We strengthen local nonprofits by putting volunteers to work.

We create partnerships between volunteers and nonprofits to tackle issues that matter to our community.

Any other thoughts or suggestions for Melissa and the very wonderful and hard-working folks at The Volunteer Center of Morgan County?

Mini-Mission Makeover: Association for Supportive Child Care

I recently did a follow-up webinar to a keynote I gave at the Alliance for Arizona Nonprofits’ Annual Membership Meeting. I invited participants to send in their response to the question “What do you do?”, so we could chat about them.

The Association for Supportive Child Care sent in the following sentence: “We work to enhance the quality of care for children across Arizona.”

This is very similar to their Mission Statement, which is “to enhance the quality of care for children across Arizona.” It’s great that their Mission Statement is so short and sweet, isn’t it? So rare and wonderful!

My advice–stick with that short n’ sweet Mission Statement of theirs. They *almost* stick with it but commit a common messaging mistake–they use a qualifier. In their case, the qualifier is “work to…” Other examples of qualifiers include: striving, endeavoring, and trying.

Qualifiers function as little, tiny apologies. They make your work seem like it has less impact, less oomph, than it really does. They don’t enhance your messaging. It makes it sound like you’re kinda, sorta doing the thing you’re referencing, but you’re not all in. People want to support organizations that are all in for whatever they’re doing. Sitting on the fence isn’t inspiring. Best to eliminate qualifiers.

For the Association for Supportive Child Care, they could simply say, “We enhance the quality of care for children across Arizona.” Simple. It begs the question, “How do you enhance the quality of care?” And remember–when it comes to using language to engage people in your work, questions are good!

? = : )



Please step away from your Mission Statement!

engagement, connection, marketing, fundraising, strategy
Engagement Cycle

We’re going to try out something new–Mini-Mission Makeovers. The purpose of these is to get more out of your Mission Statements.

Let’s talk about those Mission Statements, shall we?

Every nonprofit has one. Most are quite wed to them. Organizations invest hours and hours into both creating these statements and then having everyone memorize them.

Organizations undertake this memorizing of the Mission Statement with a view to staff and board being able to repeat the statement word for word when someone asks what your organization does. It is considered a success when all board members and staff can, in fact, repeat it word for word. Never mind that most people sound like robots when they repeat the Mission Statement. And that the statement itself is usually long, boring, and not very interesting. Never mind that it’s not anything anyone outside the organization would ever repeat. Never mind.

Don’t get me wrong–you should have a mission statement. It’s a very useful tool. But most Mission Statements don’t generally do a good job of succinctly and compellingly communicating what you do and why you do it to people outside of your organization.

Therefore, I beseech you to please step away from your Mission Statement!

Yes, you read that correctly. Stop worrying so much about your Mission Statement and start focusing on coming up with a really good response to the question: “What does your organization do?” that really answers the question “What do you want to be known for?”

Let’s pause on this because it’s important: People don’t generally wander up to you at a bbq and say, “It’s been a while, Harry, remind me what you want to be know for again, will ya?” Nope. People wander up and say, “Reminder me what you do again for work, will ya?” So that’s the question you’ll get. Your job is to use the opportunity to make sure they leave the conversation knowing what you want to be known for so that they can talk about that to others.

By coming up with a concise and compelling statement about what you want to be known for, not only do you make it easy for people to decide if they want to engage with you and your organization, you also make it easy for them to talk about your work with others who may be interested. (Note that a robotic recitation of your Mission Statement is neither concise, nor compelling. It is, therefore, not repeatable.)

Am I talking about your Elevator Pitch? Kind of, but not really. The idea of an Elevator Pitch is kind of weird, when you get right down to it. It implies that someone will go from first hearing about you to writing you a check in short order. #Creepy

Really what you need are a collection of statements that align with each point along the Engagement Cycle (see spiffy graphic above). You want statements that invite questions. Why? Because when someone asks a question, you get to know exactly what interests them about your work. That makes it easy for you to personalize what you tell them, thus quickly and efficiently moving along the Engagement Cycle. Neat, right?!

The toughest statement is always the “Know Statement”. It’s a humdinger. Ideally, it’s 10 words or less. If those 10 words are of interest to the person with whom you’re talking, you might move them along to an “Understand Statement”, whereby you help them understand what you do, why you do it, how you do it, etc. If they still look interested, then and only then, might you invite them to engage with you in some way–visiting the website, coming to an event, whatever.

Coming up with your “Know Statement” is no easy task, I’ll give you that. And that’s why we’re going to start doing the “Mini-Mission Makeovers”! We’ll give you specific tips for how to make-over your Mission Statement (because they are often a handy starting point for creating your “Know Statement”), so it becomes a useful tool for engaging people outside your organization, e.g. donors, supporters, volunteers, etc.

For our first Mini-Mission Makeover, we have Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County.

“We are dedicated to strengthening families and individuals by providing a wide range of social services and programs, including therapy, information and referral, support, education and advocacy.”


  1. Find an alternative to provide: You knew that was coming, didn’t you?! I’ve written about this a lot, so won’t bust out my soapbox in this post. If you aren’t sure why provide is so bad, you can read all about it here.
  2. Get rid of the “to be” verb: Whenever I see “to be” verbs (e.g. is, are, am) in a mission statement, I start by figuring out how to get rid of them. Lots of the time, “to be” verbs make a sentence duller than it needs to be. For instance, rather than saying “We are dedicated to strengthening…”, Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County could simply say, “We strengthen…”. Boom.
  3. Ditch the ‘Services Laundry List’ and decide on the one thing for which you really want to be known: This is a tough one, I  know, but if you tell someone your everything, they’ll remember nothing. You want people to remember you and talk about your amazing work to others. Thus, the need to pick one–or at most two– things to highlight from the cornucopia of awesomeness that you do. (If you’re stumped by this, check out the Messaging Toolkit and/or the Organizational Lexicon, both free and available in our DIY section.)

Here’s how implementing the above recommendations might look:

“We strengthen families and individuals through therapy, education and advocacy.”

Now, I haven’t chatted with the folks at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Greater Mercer County, so I’m not sure what they want to be known for, but you get the idea–fewer words, spunkier verbs and no laundry list.

Want help making over your Mission Statement? Post it on Claxon’s Facebook page and we’ll see what we can do!



Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?