If you asked your board chairperson, your receptionist, and your donation processor what the mission of your nonprofit was, would they all answer the same way? Or would their answers be like those in the Indian fable when blind people are asked to describe an elephant based on only feeling one part of it?

Too often, our staff and volunteers only experience a portion of what we do, and that’s what – in their minds – becomes our mission. That’s equally true with donors. Many have read about other programs or heard us talk about them, but there’s only one (albeit limited) picture in their minds when they think about what we do.

One reason for a donor’s confusion is our own confusion. In an effort not to limit our future, we create mission statements that leave room for just about anything we might want to do someday instead of first establishing our vision – what would the world look like if we were totally successful – and then asking, “What will we do to move toward that place?”

On a box of cereal, General Mills states, “We serve the world by making food people love.” Those nine words tell us a lot. They are global. Their product is food. Their goal is tasty. They also leave a lot of room for growth – adding countries or new food lines, for example — but set the boundaries that prevent mission creep. It’s hard to be tempted to launch an automobile manufacturing facility within the walls of that mission.

Looking at the mission statements of 10 nonprofit organizations that raise $800 million or more annually, there’s a different story. These statements ranged from 15 words (1 organization) to 51 words, with the average being 30 words. Many used terms that had little meaning to a person not involved in their sphere of service. Some statements were too complex to be easily understood. Only a few ignited passion.

Is your mission statement carrying around too much baggage to be a true rallying point for your donors, volunteers, board, staff and anyone else affiliated with your cause? Then take a look at these two resources:

What can you say about your organization that is memorable and meaningful … and 12 words or less?