Good Missions for Arts Organizations

What is your mission?
What is your mission?
What is your mission? Is it…logical?

With the passing of Leonard Nimoy, I’m sure many of us have been remembering favorite Spock moments in great Star Trek episodes, including the inspirational music and the invocation of their five-year mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

But here’s a funny thing: what’s missing from this invocation is what’s missing from most arts organizations’ mission statements: an expression of why they’re doing what they’re doing. Why are they exploring, seeking and boldly going? What’s the point? We can ask that question to Spock or Kirk for the same reason we should be asking that question of all arts leaders — because we need to understand the purpose behind the program.

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In order to qualify for tax-exempt status with the IRS, nonprofit organizations need to express a mission and purpose that has a public benefit. This is the essential bargain being offered by government: we allow you to avoid paying taxes on the proceeds of your work if you can suggest how and why your organization’s work will provide real and tangible benefits to individuals, communities and/or society as a whole. It seems like a good deal to me. Organizations that have an outward-looking mission should earn this exemption, while those that are only doing what they do for their own benefit should not.

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The problem lies in the fact that so many nonprofit arts organizations are not outwardly focused and only exist to advance the work of those within the organization. And it’s not that they ignore outwardly-directed mission statements, they just have bad missions. Here’s a sampling of actual mission statements from real arts organizations. Names have been removed to protect the innocent.

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  • “To produce professional opera for a growing, appreciative audience.”
  • “The  ********* Theater is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to promoting and advancing the performing, visual, and creative art of puppetry through an ongoing series of family performances, guest artists, school programs, workshops and outreach programs. We also maintain a unique puppetry gift shop.”
  • “********* is firmly rooted in and dedicated to the life of its community. Through its principal aesthetic of great stories, well told, ********* aspires to the continuous creation of a theater that represents all that is ***********, all that is American, all that is human. With the unique performance style of a resident acting company, ********** nurtures the development of new work while keeping the classics alive and relevant to the new generation of theater audiences.”
  • “The mission of ********** Theatre is to create a meaningful theatre generated from an authentic link to the community.”
  • “The mission of ********** Dance is to present the past, present and future of classical dance to audiences in New York and around the world.”

Yuck! Those are awful, and for different reasons. Some are dumb. Some are unclear. But all are more about the “what” of the organization more than the “why.” There is no expression or explanation of their purpose, no sense of what they are doing that is good for us. And let me be clear in saying that, in my mind, a mission to create or present music, dance, opera or theatre is not sufficient to warrant tax-exempt status.

So here’s a good one, written by and for the Nuyorican Poets Café on NYC’s Lower East Side:

…To furnish the information and the vision to empower the underclass to join the mainstream and reinvigorate the American temper.

I admire this mission statement for many reasons. It is bold. It is clear. The “why” is front and center, to the extent that there isn’t even any reference to what they do. That mission was published over 30 years ago and it remains relevant today. It has allowed the organization to continue to grow and evolve, changing the “what” to serve the “why.”

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I really can’t fathom why the IRS continues to grant tax-exempt status to so many organizations whose missions do not warrant preferential treatment. But let’s put that aside for a moment and just focus on the importance of a good mission statement. To put it another way: even if you can get away with having a lousy mission statement, why should you make the effort to develop a better one? Let me suggest several reasons:

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  1. A good, outward-focused mission can inspire, align and direct the energies of staff and board in the same direction.
  2. That sort of mission will also inspire and motivate financial support, not just from traditional arts funders, but from sectors where the public benefit is relevant.
  3. A why-based mission gives an organization flexibility but also clear parameters as to what it should and should not do. The question to be asked before programs are selected, facilities are developed or campaigns are initiated is: “Does this action move us closer to the achievement of the goals and purpose of the organization as expressed in our mission statement?” If the answer is yes, go forward.

I think a lot of the resistance to the why-based mission relates to the prospect that there will be nothing to do once the mission is achieved — the fear that the organization might lose its purpose and thus be forced to cease operations. In fact, that is exactly what should happen, and it’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a great thing: If and when you achieve your mission, you declare victory and go home.

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There are lots of other worthy missions waiting to be taken on. Don’t avoid them by trying to extend your current one. Kirk and Spock were clear on this, without even imagining the endless reruns.