Eight is Enough

Peter Drucker may not have been quite this rigid, but he would have been close. “We want to cut to the chase,” writes Kevin Starr in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “and the tool that works for us is the eight-word mission statement.”

Starr directs the Mulago Foundation, an organization that funds scalable solutions to big problems, and he doesn’t want to encounter a lot of verbiage, or words like “capacity-building,” from the people asking him for money.  He wants something simple.

“Why eight words?” Starr asks. “It just seems to work. It’s long enough to be specific and short enough to force clarity. Save kids’ lives in Uganda. Rehabilitate coral reefs in the Western Pacific. Prevent maternal-child transmission of HIV in Africa. Get Zambian farmers out of poverty.”

Photo credit: Ian Britton

When we say that Drucker was nearly as strict about mission statements as Starr is, we’re thinking in particular of a passage from The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization.  “The effective mission statement is short and sharply focused. It should fit on a T-shirt,” Drucker wrote. “It must be clear, and it must inspire. Every board member, volunteer, and staff person should be able to see the mission and say, ‘Yes. This is something I want to be remembered for.’”

That might allow for more than eight words, we’ll admit, especially if you’re given to T-shirts with a higher word count, like this fellow is. But the idea is fundamentally the same.

Still, Drucker would have had one significant disagreement with Starr.  At the start of his post, Starr writes, “Whatever windy drivel they might put forward as a corporate mission statement, mainstream for-profit businesses have a clear, central mission: make money for shareholders.”

Drucker was adamant that business should be about much more than that and, as we’ve discussed, lamented the primacy of shareholders when he encountered it. Indeed, Drucker felt that a mission statement was as essential to the for-profit enterprise as to the non-profit one, and he stressed that failing to create one that was about more than money was bad for business.

“The mission statement has to express the contribution the enterprise plans to make to society, to economy, to the customer,” Drucker asserted. “Mission statements that express the purpose of the enterprise in financial terms fail inevitably to create the cohesion, the dedication, the vision of the people who have to do the work so as to realize the enterprise’s goal.”

What do you think: Is eight words for a mission always enough?