Great mission, bad statement

Poor language can trip up the best nonprofit mission statement. And when people are confused they don’t fully engage, says Erica Mills in this article for SSIR. The good news, though, is that the problem can be fixed.
2019-02-07 00:00:00 India Development Review Great mission, bad statement
2 Min read Share


Nonprofits are spending more to get people involved in their cause simply because no one can understand what they’re saying. The language they use to convey who they are, what they stand for, and what they do confuses donors, volunteers, staff, and board. And when people are confused, they don’t fully engage.

Luckily, this is a fixable problem, and there are three things organizations can do to solve it.

1. Create a mission statement that articulates the root problem you address.
A mission statement is a nonprofit’s lead domino: It sets everything else in motion. There’s nothing wrong with an organization  featuring its mission statement. The problem is featuring a mission statement that no one can understand. Unfortunately, incomprehensibility is too often the norm.

One of the best tools for making a mission statement easier to understand is the Flesch reading-ease test, which tells you how easy, or hard, something is to understand—roughly from 0-100, where higher numbers indicating greater readability.

2. Expand your linguistic repertoire.
Research on novelty from Stanford Professor Russell Poldrack and others infers that organizations can get more people to pay attention by using words that others aren’t using.

Yet after analyzing the words on 2,503 nonprofit websites (which offer excellent insight into broader language usage), I learned that nonprofits are availing themselves of a mere five percent of the more than one million words in the English language. That leaves 95 percent of all English words—words capable of piquing and keeping people’s interest—unused.

3. Use better verbs.
Verbs are action words. They are especially important in nonprofit messaging because they represent the change an organization is making in the world. Unfortunately, nonprofits often use terribly boring verbs to describe their amazing work!

Based on our research, top verbs nonprofits use are: support, make, and provide.

  • Support works as both a noun (“Your support is invaluable”) and a verb (“Please support us”), which bumps up its frequency.
  • Make shows up in two of the most common phrases nonprofits use: “Make a donation” and “make a difference.” So it’s not surprising that the term appears on approximately 75 percent of all nonprofit websites.
  • That brings us to provide. Putting this verb front and center pretty much assures that no one will notice the change you are creating—68 percent of nonprofit websites use it.

With or without a mission statement overhaul, nonprofits would benefit from aiming for high reading-ease scores in all their communications, from availing themselves of the 95 percent of words other nonprofits aren’t using, and from finding more interesting verbs to explain what they do and why they do it.

This is an excerpt from the full article, which can be found here.

We want IDR to be as much yours as it is ours. Tell us what you want to read.


We hope the conversations that take place on will be energetic, constructive, and thought-provoking. To ensure the quality of the discussion, our moderating team will review all comments and may edit them for clarity, length, and relevance. Comments that are overly promotional, mean-spirited, or off-topic may be deleted per the moderators' judgment. All posts become the property of India Development Review.
Get smart.
Sign up for our free weekly newsletter, IDR Edit.
Follow us
Get smart. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter, IDR Edit.

IDR is India’s first independent media platform for the development community.

We publish cutting edge ideas, lessons and insights, written by and for the people working on some of India’s toughest problems. Our job is to make things simple and relevant, so you can do more of what you do, better.

IDR is produced in partnership with Ashoka University’s Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy.

Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Contact
© 2020 India Development Review    
India Development Review is published by the Forum for Knowledge and Social Impact, a not-for-profit company registered under Section 8 of the Company Act, 2013.
CIN: U93090MH2017NPL296634