“Simple can be harder than complex: you have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
— Steve Jobs
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, then you don’t understand it yourself.”
— Maybe Albert Einstein… or Richard Feynman
When did writing with complexity become a contest? Why do we often equate convolution with intelligence and ability? Unfortunately, this is the way most of our teachers and professors taught us to write. We pedantically harp on a subject until we fill the minimum page or word counts. Then we pray that we pass Philosophy 201 with a B-minus.
As a writer, this thought process seems totally backwards to me. It’s been noted before that bestselling authors often write at a high-school reading level. So, I decided to perform a similar experiment by surveying nonprofits’ mission statements featured on their websites. I tested each mission statement’s reading ease using the Automated Readability Index. Then, I mapped the relationship between a nonprofit’s mission statement and its fundraising efficiency (available via Charity Navigator).
Fundraising efficiency is a good bellwether here, because it’s the average amount a nonprofit spends to raise $1. It helps to determine whether a nonprofit spends more or less on its donor communications. And while you can’t necessarily define an organization’s success based on its mission, there’s definitely a pattern to consider here. The difference between 11th and 13th-grade readability is stark. Consider the reading proficiency of a high-school junior and a college freshman.
The ugly truth is that this is a widespread issue. Sprawling, obscure mission statements lack strength and invite dreaded mission creep. One marketing agency even hosted a “Worst Nonprofit Mission Statement” contest.
The problem with many nonprofit mission statements, is that they ultimately lose support and engagement to intricacy. What do we stand to gain by writing ourselves into corners? It seems like we have a lot to say about ourselves. But in the process of getting it all down on paper, we ultimately say — and subsequently stand for — nothing.
So, knowing all this, where do we go from here? If your organization is suffering from jargonitis, we have a couple of suggestions to strengthen your nonprofit’s mission statement.