The characteristics of a good mission statement

Mission statements come in all shapes and sizes: from the short and pithy to the comprehensive and verbose; and from the vague and general to the specific and measurable. There are no absolutes, ultimately it is what is right for your institution, its staff and its stakeholders that is the only criteria that really counts. For no matter how well written it may be, how succinct or worthy, simple or complicated, it will only be effective if it is generally considered to be an accurate and useful summary of your organisation and if it ‘says something’ to its stakeholders.

That said, there are some general principles that it may be worth bearing in mind when defining a new mission statement, or reviewing a current one.

  1. Make it as succinct as possible. A mission statement should be as short and snappy as possible – preferably brief enough to be printed on the back of a business card. The detail which underpins it should be mapped out elsewhere (see Vision and Values)
  2. Make it memorable. Obviously partially linked to the above, but try to make it something that people will be able to remember the key elements of, even if not the exact wording
  3. Make it unique to you. It’s easy to fall into the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ trap with generic statements that could equally apply to any institution. Focus on what it is that you strive to do differently: how you achieve excellence, why you value your staff or what it is about the quality of the student experience that sets you apart from the rest.
  4. Make it realistic. Remember, your mission statement is supposed to be a summary of why you exist and what you do. It is a description of the present, not a vision for the future. If it bears little or no resemblance to the organisation that your staff know it will achieve little.
  5. Make sure it’s current. Though it is not something which should be changed regularly, neither should it be set in stone. Your institution’s priorities and focus may change significantly over time – perhaps in response to a change of direction set by a new Vice-Chancellor or Principal, or major changes in government policy. On such occasions the question should at least be asked: ‘does our current mission statement still stand?’

It may be useful to re-read the examples cited in the mission statement section in the light of this list and to assess if and how each demonstrate these qualities.

Hopefully, if your mission statement conforms to the above principles it should stand a good chance of fulfilling its objectives, but there are no guarantees – especially if, no matter how well worded – it is not accepted by the broader institutional community. For if your institution as a whole, or significant elements of it, reject your mission statement wholesale its value is effectively lost and it will forever remain a slick, but essentially meaningless, set of words. The main mitigation against this risk is likely to stem from the way in which your mission statement, along with your vision and values are formulated, communicated and disseminated – topics addressed elsewhere in this resource.

The Institutional Experience

On the basis of reflection at senior management level, followed by some small-scale ‘reality-check’ testing in a small number of staff teams, we identified a mission focussed around the concepts of Promoting, Developing, Supporting. The proposition is that these words reflect the scope of our activities over the student lifecycle from initial enquiry to final award (promoting the University; promoting educational aspiration; developing life and learning skills, developing employability, supporting students, etc). We considered whether the three concepts were in a linear or circular relationship and toyed with a number of different layouts. On the final strategy document, the mission appears as follows, alongside an image which is intended to reflect the importance of teamworking, collaboration and partnerships (as expressed elsewhere in the strategy).

University of Sheffield

Published: 19 September 2012 | Last updated: 19 October 2012