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Do less, better
Does your mission statement inspire or exhaust you?
“One of our most common mistakes is to make the mission statement into a kind of hero sandwich of good intentions.”
Peter F. Drucker, from Managing the Non-Profit Organization
A favorite draft mission statement for an arts organization came from a brainstorming session with a nonprofit professional orchestra. Among a flood of conventional phrases – “elevate our community through classical music” or “foster joy and discovery through excellence in live performance” – one participant offered something simpler: “fully employ exceptional orchestral musicians.”
Of course, that mission statement would never survive the vetting process – it’s too tactical, narrow, and inwardly focused to inspire board members, donors, and civic leaders. But that’s what I liked about it. It was clear, clean, specific, and achievable, which most mission statements are not.
Most mission statements tend toward the vague, cluttered, broad, and impossible – hero sandwiches of good intention, as Peter Drucker would conclude. That creates an uncrossable chasm between what the organization promises and what its team can actually deliver. And it leaves the team either to waive away the mission as bluster, or attempt to bridge the gap with overtime, overwork, and overwhelm.
The Onion parody newspaper lampooned such mission statements in a brilliant news item:
FREEHOLD, NJ — Patrons at Dotty’s Donuts on Cranston Avenue agree that the mission statement posted near the shop's entrance seems overly ambitious. “It said, ‘At Dotty's, our goal is to reinvent the morning,’” Dotty’s patron Ken Mentilli said. “‘Dotty’s Donuts are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face and a ray of light into your soul.’ That seems like a tall order for a donut shop.”
Of course, it’s hard to stay grounded in a world that celebrates and expects a “big, hairy, audacious goal” (aka, BHAG). Architect and urban planner Daniel Hudson Burnham advocated as much when he famously said (or was famously paraphrased to say):
“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.”
But Burnham was rallying resources and resolve for massive civic projects (like designing Chicago or Washington, DC). And he didn’t consider (or acknowledge) the consequence for the people on the ground.
It’s entirely fine to aspire to bold ideas and big results. It’s often necessary to stir the blood and shake the money tree. But a wise arts manager also shapes a purpose and scope of work that won’t be extractive and exhausting for their organization – a strategy that doesn’t write rhetorical checks that the enterprise can’t cash.
My colleague Russell Willis Taylor and her former team at NAS had a great alternative and antidote to “make no little plans.” They suggested, instead, to “do less, better.”
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From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Governance
Governance involves structuring, sustaining, and overseeing the organization's purposes, resources, and goals (often through boards or trustees).
Framework of the Week: The Iron Triangle
The “iron triangle” describes the dynamic relationship within any complex nonprofit endeavor between its mission and program, its organizational capacity, and its capital structure.
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