What to do with hard-to-measure mission statements

Well, I’ve just finished the first full day at Harvard’s nonprofit leadership course and so far each class session has boiled down to one or two key ideas.This is very helpful because it makes it easier for us to take what we have learned back to our ministries. One of the cases we looked at today was an organization with the mission statement: To prevent teen pregnancies in the United States. No kidding, that’s a big mission and I wonder how much control the charity can have over teens getting pregnant! Their parents, who have a lot more control, still can’t actually prevent it. Nevertheless, that was the mission statement we had to work with. Here’s what we learned.

Your mission is your claim

Your mission statement is actually a claim. Whatever it is, that is what you claim you are working on. Some mission statements are auditable results claims, meaning that you can measure the results (results are always outside of your ministry) and prove that you are progressively fulfilling your mission by making a change in the external world.

Other mission statements make aspirational claims (such as the prevention of teen pregnancy mission statement).These claims can’t be proven. Either you can’t measure them or you can’t make a causal connection between your work and the real world result. So how do you satisfy your board and your funders that you are making progress? Fortunately for you, no problem!

When you can’t prove your claim

What you need when you can’t measure is a really good theory of change. Whatever you believe about the cause and effect related to the problem you are trying to solve is your theory of change. The easiest way to think through and show your theory is to use a logic model. You may not have a theory of change handy, but every organization has at least an implicit theory of change.

If you don’t know where to start, you could look at your current programs and major initiatives. When you designed them, you had some belief about what needed to happen to make the change you want to see. So now you need to document the linkage between your activities and the final impact you want to have on the world and give that to your board and funders. You could also go back to the philosophy held by the founders of your ministry. What did they say they believed about the problem? What have you said you believe about the problem?

If the theory is well-articulated and makes intuitive sense, you should measure what you can, get what anecdotal evidence you can, and then rely on the theory of change as an agreement with the board and funders that if you are working within the theory of change, it can be accepted that you are contributing to the problem’s solution.

When the case was finished, we had worked out their theory of change based on their statements and discovered that almost none of their programs contributed to the change they wanted to make. In other words, they said one thing, but then tackled the problem from a completely different angle.

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  1. Loron Pellowe

    Really appreciating the summaries of your learning–succinct overviews offering nuggets of insight to consider relative to the organizations with which we are involved, either as employees, donors or volunteers. Looking forward to the next ones!

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