An effective purpose statement

An effective purpose statement

Three principles

A strong and clear purpose helps you to make strategic decisions. It helps you realise your artistic vision, and make a real difference to your audiences, your communities, and the wider world. The best purpose statements have three characteristics: radical, expressive and vital.

Assessing your purpose
Most organisations have a statement of remit or vision or mission or purpose or cause. One way to assess it is to measure it using the three principles:

  • How radical, expressive and vital is it for your people, your funders, your audiences? Or is it about something that doesn’t matter to them?
  • How authentic, plainly written and doable is it? How much is it distinctively you? Or could others say exactly the same?
  • How directional is it? How well does it guide people? How helpful is it in decision-making?  Is it open-ended, without being broad and vague? Or perhaps too narrow and prescriptive?

Half the value of creating a purpose statement is in the process, so it’s worth engaging as many people as possible, using a simple tool like the butterfly diagram. It’s extremely valuable to get people thinking about the world you operate in, and it’s usually highly motivating to get people to discover what’s distinctive about you.

Purpose depends on conviction, not consensus
Creating a purpose statement is an act of leadership, and your organisation’s leader will need to sift through the inputs and decide on the final statement. Otherwise the danger is that the result will be bland and forgettable.

There’s no formula to creating a purpose statement — every organisation is different. However, the following steps may be useful:

  • Map out what the purpose statement needs to do and engage the relevant people in creating it, perhaps in workshops of about six people. Consider also engaging your closest stakeholders, including your trustee board.
  • Create a number of hypotheses, test the emerging ideas potentially through external research, and refine.
  • Make an action plan, working with your management team to define what needs to change in order to live up to the purpose.
  • Share this with your people, perhaps again in workshops of about six people, asking them: “what can you do to help us deliver on this purpose?”
  • For the next six months or so, keep checking in, being open to refining the statement in the light of experience.

Many organisations find it helpful to think in terms of prototyping: make a hypothesis or prototype, test it rigorously, and improve it, going through this cycle as many times as you need to.

The main points in the process
Creating a purpose is never easy. You may well face difficult decisions along the way. These could be:

  • Losing things you value, since setting a new purpose will always mean shedding some of the past.
  • Excluding some future opportunities, since deciding on a decisive purpose will cut out other possibilities.
  • Making some of your people unhappy, since a bold purpose can’t possibly please all the people all the time.
  • Having to rein in overambitious people, since your purpose must be achievable, and not reach too far beyond your organisation’s grasp.

The critical thing is to use the purpose statement constantly, to drive both your ‘hard’ strategy and your ‘soft’ culture. Ask the question: “does this decision / idea / behaviour / project help us deliver on our purpose? And if not, why are we doing it?”

In this way, the purpose becomes part of the climate of the organisation. It can also be helpful to use the purpose formally — maybe in a trustee meeting — to assess how well your organisation is living up to its cause.

Reviewing your purpose
When you need new commitment from your top team or your staff, or from funders. This could be because there’s been a big external change — a change in ownership or legal status or funding streams — or a significant internal change, like a big capital project, or a new chief executive, a new artistic director.

Next step: Shaping your organisation’s culture

It covers:

  • Assessing your purpose against the three key characteristics: is it radical, expressive and vital?
  • Steps to consider when devising your purpose.
  • When to review your purpose.

Published December 2018

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