what to do with hard to measure mission statements
A small pile of vegetables encircled by a measuring tape. Photo by James Farmer from FreeImages

Well, I’ve just finished the first full day at Harvard’s nonprofit leadership course (Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management) 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.

Note: Usually a mission statement supports a vision statement and it is the vision statement we want to prove we are making progress on. However, I’ll use the word mission in this post as that is what the charity in the case used.

Your Mission Is Your Claim

Your mission statement (or end statement) is actually a claim. Whatever it is, that is what you claim you are working on. Some mission statements have 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 have 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!

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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 causes and effects related to the problem you are trying to solve is your theory of change. A theory of change shows the actions you will take to advance your mission. Those actions are the outputs of your ministry and they have short term outcomes in the world outside your ministry that eventually lead to long term outcomes and then mission success. You can easily prove what the outputs were (showing that the ministry was busy) and you can probably get at least some measurement of the short term outcomes. But you will find it very hard to measure the long term outcomes because they take, well, a long time before they are evident. And even if they can be measured, can the outcomes be linked to your programs? When you get to long term outcomes and ultimate income, you have entered the Realm of Cherished Belief! You really, really want to believe that your programs had long-lasting impact but you can’t prove it. But this is when you rely on your theory of change.

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. You can say, “Does it make sense that if we do this, we should have that result? And if we get that result, it is reasonable to assume we had that impact?” The logic can be persuasive even when the outcomes and impacts cannot be measured or attributed directly to your programs.

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. A good theory of change keeps you focused on what you really need to do and it provides compelling logic that the work you are doing really matters.

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Thoughts on What to Do with Hard-to-Measure Mission Statements

  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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