Monday, January 31, 2011

Missions That Matter

 “Re-visioning Vision Statements” posted in late December noted that vision statements are often absent from a museum’s driving principles. The fresh-take offered was an invitation to museums to revisit vision statements. From queries, comments, and pageviews, there's a clear  interest in vision statements, what they do, and what a good one is. Following closely behind is a parallel interest in mission statements. Here's a revisiting of missions.

Minnesota Children's Museum (Photograph: Vergeront)
If museums tend to overlook vision statements, they seem to have fraught relationships with mission statements. Countless times I have noticed board and staff being mystified, frustrated, annoyed, dismissive, and disappointed by mission statements. Mission statements have intrigued me ever since I met my first one at the emerging Madison Children’s Museum about 1980. As I have worked with more museums since then, mission statements have felt like a remarkable opportunity to capture why a museum matters. Mission statements are not easy to craft and I have not succeeded as much as I have hoped. Still my belief in the promise of a forceful mission statement and the process that produces it remains strong.

How’s your organization’s mission statement? Are you hearing different versions of it from your board or staff? Getting blank looks when you talk to funders? Trying to build your brand, or ready to embark on a strategic planning process? If so, revisiting your mission can bring new meaning and muscle to the heavy lifting every museum does.

Mission Basics
A mission, vision, and values are the driving principles that provide on-going guidance to a museum engaged in the serious work of converting public goodwill to public benefit. Together they set long-term direction and define the beliefs and behaviors that enable an organization to get there. 
A clear statement of the reason a museum exists is a mission’s contribution to this set of principles. A mission statement answers four questions: What does it contribute? who does it serve, how does it deliver? and why is this important?
Answering four basic questions seems simple. Building agreement around the answers to these questions, however, is not, and probably shouldn't be. The what, for whom , how, and why of a mission statement must be aligned and work together powerfully, be relevant to the community, and inspire action. A few promising methods, examples, and cautions can help strengthen a mission to guide the way to valued work.
  • Prime the pump
  • Be clear, be really clear
  • Be authentic, bold and compelling
  • Value the process and product of developing a mission statement
Prime the pump with engaging questions, lively discussion, and good background information. Bring the right people together, thinkers and linkers, board and staff, new perspectives and solid continuity. Do this as an enjoyable exploratory preamble to the very different work of landing on a mission. Do it also as an investment in developing a shared understanding of the museum’s most important ideas and building a solid organizational culture.
  • Prepare. Access solid knowledge about the community, its priorities, who  you want to serve, and other organizations sharing the landscape. 
  • Wander. Some engaging, open-ended questions will invite board and staff to tap into personal connections to the museum’s hopes.
  • Work in different ways. Share some reading in advance of the meeting that is inspiring, informative, and provocative. Discuss some questions as a larger group; explore alternatives as small groups.
  • Bring passion and facts together to explore new possibilities. Draw on reports and studies about local priorities to understand the organization’s relevance.
Be clear, be really clear. Mission statements bring together grand hopes, roomy ideas, multiple perspectives, and long-term interests. There can be an unruly competition among ideas that are at different scales, work awkwardly together, and have champions. Rather than tame these ideas into bland submission, dig deeper to explore them and understand the relationships among them. Connect them with clear language. Clarity builds the strength needed for a mission statement to guide a complex organization like a museum.
  • Concentrate your thinking on the difference the museum will make in the life of the community and its citizens and why this benefit is important. Build this understanding on existing studies, reports, and needs assessments. Connect the dots between the museum’s value and community priorities.
  • Differentiate among constituencies, groups who you must serve in order to accomplish your purpose. General terms such as everyone, people of all ages, or varied publics offer little guidance in serving and engaging your audience. Identify attributes related to age, interest, geography, or groups that are critical to what you do and why this is important.
  • Bring precision to how your museum will distinguish itself from other organizations striving towards similar goals. A question to explore this might be, “what can this museum accomplish for the community that another museum with a similar purpose is not able to accomplish?”
  • Probe meanings. Favorite words such as, “community,” “interactive,” or “family” are used frequently and freely with no assurance that they carry the same meaning. A friendly, “Can you talk more about what you mean by exemplary?” is an invitation to explore meanings. Or discuss the differences between community engagement and civic engagement to highlight meaningful distinctions.
  • Follow the implications of your ideas. Does the mission work with the vision? Does it point to a set of strong values to which the museum, board, and staff can hold true? What, more specifically, is meant by “to learn from those traditions to help shape a better future”? What is attractive about this phrase, and what does it mean?
  • Weed out unproductive words. Avoid ambiguous language, jargon, and clichés. Phrases such as “…and related activities” add little. Be clear without being plain, and specific without being narrow. Use memorable language without being grandiose.
Be authentic, bold and compelling. In building a mission, a museum forges a deeper knowledge of itself and its aspirations. A museum must discover by itself the full measure of its aspirations. It cannot borrow them, be timid or modest in its ambitions. Probing deeper also serves to strengthen what distinguishes a museum from other organizations.
  • Authenticity rests in knowing one’s essence. That essence, or identity, must be embedded in a museum’s mission. Neither the identity of a logo nor a tagline, essence distinguishes a museum from similar organizations or a blander version of itself. It is intentionally played out in strategy, program options, operations, spirit and style. Sharpening an identity is as necessary for an established museum as for a start-up museum. 
  • Entertain bold ideas and great possibilities. Bold ideas, right for a museum and attuned to its community, deserve the courage to act on them. An art museum revisiting its mission and vision mentioned several powerful ideas that permeated recent activities. One was the community is the greatest work of art. The mission statement, however, reflected nothing of this interesting idea. Rather its mission is, "The Fine Art Museum shall establish and maintain a museum in order to house and exhibit a permanent collection of art as well as to provide space for traveling exhibitions, for the purpose of the enjoyment and education of the general public in City, State, and the surrounding communities.” (Identifying information removed.)
  •  Be compelling. Characterize what you do in inspiring and precise ways. What produces a greater sense of necessity a: a vital center, a public place, or a laboratory? Look closely; is your mission persuasive enough to attract a broad base of support to be sustainable for the long term? Are you connecting on the emotional level?
  • PS: When you reach for what’s bold and compelling, don’t confuse grandiose or inflated words for bold ideas.
Value the process and the process of building a mission. Having a mission is as much about forging a shared understanding as it is about a mission that inspires commitment and guides the museum. A lively back-and-forth and time to revisit ideas is indispensable in building agreement around shared aspirations and purpose. Debate and discussion make a mission stronger and better understood across a greater range of situations.
  • When worked hard through discussion, questioning, and making meaningful distinctions, a mission becomes more inspiring internally. Hard work also pays off if a mission statement is also meaningful to people outside the organization. 
  • Each new choice can change the dynamic of the mission. Determining that the museum will enrich the lives of county residents (what and for whom) may require clarity around how and why. Revisit ideas and distinctions to make sure the alignment is solid.
  • A full, productive process will allow current and future staff and board to understand not only what the museum does, but what it doesn’t do. Where discovery begins may feel like a mission to those who have just drafted it. But given the long-term nature of a mission, the shortcomings of this brief statement will inevitably be revealed.
Missions that Matter for Museums that Matter
Building a mission statement is a shared journey with significant challenges and great benefits. Living up to a mission statement, especially one that soars, is an exhilarating challenge. Fortunately, a mission statement is use dependent. The more it is discussed, applied, and put to work, the more its capacity as a tool and a guide shows and grows. It points to where you are going and reduces the risk of wandering. A shared tool for management and governance, it helps move the museum towards what matters.
Below, a variety of mission statements suggests how the four questions can be answered to capture their organizations' aspirations and purpose. Not all mission statements here answer all four questions, but all are serviceable, give guidance, and make some valuable distinctions. Is there a mission statement you know of that does a fine job in important respects? What do you think it does particularly well? Why?

• The mission of the Monterey Bay Aquarium is to inspire conservation of the oceans.
• American Association of Museums: To strengthen museums through leadership, advocacy, collaboration and service. 
Harlem Children’s Zone: To improve the lives of poor children in America’s most devastated communities.
Shelburne Farms: Cultivate a conservation ethic for a sustainable future.
The Walker Art Center is a catalyst for the creative expression of artists and the active engagement of audiences. Focusing on the visual, performing, and media arts of our time, the Walker takes a global, multidisciplinary, and diverse approach to the creation, presentation, interpretation, collection, and preservation of art. Walker programs examine the questions that shape and inspire us as individuals, cultures, and communities.
Science Museum of London: Become a center for public debate on issues in contemporary science and technology.
Tulsa Children’s Museum: Inspiring children, connecting families, and building community through exploration, exhibits, programming, and play.
Science Museum of Minnesota: Turn on the science: realizing the potential of policy makers, educators, and individuals to achieve full civic and economic participation in the world.
• The mission of The New York Public Library is to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities.

Links to perspectives on mission statements: 


  1. I'm looking for info on how to create a museum's FISCAL mission statement. The who, the why, the what and the how, thanks

  2. Unfortunately I don't have any specific material, my own or from other museums on developing a fiscal mission statement. Here are a few thoughts: 1) You'll want to ground this in the museum's vision and mission, for the type of museum you are (art, history, science; public, private, etc.), and in the context of your community. 2) You already have the right parts to cover in a fiscal mission statement: what, who, how, and why. 3) I think, in this case, starting with the "why" might be helpful: long-term financial stability or sustainability? to advance the public good, expand access and inclusion, what way? etc. 4) You might look for strategic goals from several museums that deal with financial resources; 5) loosely work through the process in this blog post. I hope this helps!