Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before: “Our mission is more critical now than ever!”
If you’ve ever received a fundraising communication from a nonprofit organization, you’ve probably seen this line.
I’ll stop short of condemning it for all times and all places, but exaggerated rhetoric is one of the most common symptoms of lazy copywriting. This statement is especially alluring—hence its widespread usage—because of how easy it is to convince yourself that it’s true: “No . . .our mission really is more important right now! Have you seen what’s going on?”
Even if it is true, though, there are almost always better ways to communicate this idea, not least because so many other organizations are saying the same thing. It just may take a little more work.
The “more critical than ever” statement is brandished so frequently because it offers an easy rhetorical shortcut from problem to solution. As regular readers of Philanthropy Daily most certainly know, all good fundraising communications state the problem your organization exists to address right from the start. From there, the trick is finding the right rhetorical “bridge” from this problem out in the world to your organization’s solution.
Good copy-writing makes the donor that bridge. This is the great missed opportunity of the “more critical than ever” approach. Instead of using this generic sentence to set up your ask, you can reframe both the bridge and the ask to make the donor the hero of your organization’s specific story. Adopting this approach, “Our mission is more critical than ever. Can we count on your support?” becomes “For these reasons, your support is urgently needed to [fulfill your specific mission] through [your specific programs].”
In most cases, the issue runs deeper than a few lines in a fundraising communication. Many organizations fail to achieve sufficient clarity about the different elements of their core messaging statements and the purposes they serve. Most acutely, organizations tend to conflate their vision with their mission. In short, your vision should articulate how the world will look if you succeed in your mission. Your mission, on the other hand, should state the specific ways that your organization will work to realize this vision. Your programs then execute your mission.
In fundraising copy-writing, vision corresponds roughly to the problem statement and mission to your solution. While there is certainly value to accurately diagnosing a real and pressing problem, outlining the problem does not make the case for why your organization is particularly well-equipped to address it. The problem statement merely describes the present state of “the world.” Your vision articulates the future state.
As such, vision talk only gets you so far. Before a donor gives, he must be convinced that your solution to this problem will indeed help to realize that vision. If your mission is some variation of “to make the world a better place,” you’re setting your organization up for failure . . . and you’re not doing your copywriter any favors. It’s not that your organization is not in some real way making the world a better place; rather, it’s that a broad and vague mission statement provides no effective means for evaluating your success in achieving it.
While I don’t think any organizational leaders set out to conflate their mission with their vision, there is a certain comfort to having a vision for a mission. After all, the content of vision statements tends to be unobjectionable. Who could be against a world with less hunger, less political polarization, or higher literacy?
This comfort is short-lived. At some point, you will be evaluated on your success in achieving your mission. When your mission is actually a vision, this evaluation could encompass all kinds of things that are out of your control. To take an example from above, let’s say your organization aims to reduce hunger. Suppose your programs last year succeeded by every conceivable metric, but a bad crop harvest halfway across the world exacerbated hunger on the whole.
With a clear mission/vision distinction, you can articulate why your work—and the donor’s support—is more urgently needed as a result of this external factor. In muddier messaging waters, it might start to look like your mission is more critical than ever because you haven’t done a very good job in achieving it to date.
I’m not saying all of this is easy. Given the demands of fundraising copy-writing—saying all that you need to say in a few paragraphs or (at most) pages—one can see how these different elements are often conflated. But this clarity is crucial: for you, as you make your case for support; for your organization, as it seeks to execute its mission as effectively as possible; and for your donor, as he strives to give well.