A worrying trend is creeping across the nonprofit sector in Australia.  More and more organisations are crafting new ‘mission statements’ that are nothing more than marketing taglines. And not always good ones at that.

This is a problem, because taglines and mission statements serve completely different purposes. 

An important marketing tool, a tagline is essential for promoting your organisation at a glance—typically in less than 6 seconds.  A mission statement is a fundamental principle that lives at the heart of your organisation.  It should permeate everything that you do, communicate the impact an organisation is trying to achieve, the method they are using to achieve it and who it is helping.

Good fictitious examples might include:

“To alleviate poverty and grow local economies in the developing world by providing micro finance to entrepreneurial women.”

“To cure childhood Leukaemia by providing dedicated funding for targeted research.”

“To feed every hungry person in Queensland through a network of dedicated foodbanks.”

A strategically crafted and compelling mission statement will unite all members of the community via a common understanding of purpose and provide clear detail of what is unique about your organisation.   It tells the story of your organisation in a single sentence.

Taglines are quite different.  They say very little about the organisation and are typically short, sharp marketing slogans designed to give the unfamiliar a snapshot of what you are about and make them want to find out more.  They are powerful and effective.  A very common tagline format is the double or triple tagline, such as these from the for-profit world:

Microsoft
Your potential. Our passion.

Wal-Mart
Save Money. Live Better.

Olympus
Your Vision.  Our Future.

Kodak
Share moments.  Share life.

EBay
Buy It. Sell It. Love It.

Survivor
Outwit. Outplay. Outlast

These are all great taglines, but not one of them is a mission statement.  And a tagline is no substitute for a mission statement. Don’t let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

To help organisations avoid the tagline-as-a-mission-statement trap, we have devised a very simple test.

Imagine your secret agent of choice, who is unaware of your organisation’s existence. Now write your mission statement down in a sealed envelope, and hand it to the agent with the following instruction: “Your mission for the next year, should you choose to accept it, is to do this.” Would they know with a reasonable level of detail what they would be spending the next year doing?  

If your honest answer is yes, you probably have a mission statement.

But if the honest answer is no, you have probably handed over a tagline. Chances are it is a marketing slogan that could be easily applied to a range of organisations (perhaps an insurance company, a gym, a hotel, a hospital, a school, a travel agency, a bank or a retirement fund).  Don’t get us wrong; having a great tagline is very important.  Just don’t fall victim to believing that you can use a tagline for a mission statement.

And as for vision statements.... that's a whole other post.