Illustration © Michael Finney

This article is from the Summer 2008 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly. It was first published online on June 21, 2008.

The mission statement is a cornerstone of both external communications and internal vision, and deserves your attention whether you are a grassroots startup or a generations-old foundation. Because mission statements represent the reduction of a complex vision into a few carefully chosen words, they are similar to Japanese Haiku, poems that capture concrete images with metaphysical implications in just 17 syllables.

Why Focus on the Mission Statement?

Your organization’s mission statement deserves to be elegant, precise, and even poetic because these words embody the reason your nonprofit exists. The mission statement will be your north star when sailing stormy boardroom seas; when discussion gets contentious, we look to the mission statement for clarity. These few words will guide future generations of our organizations’ leaders. Outside the organization, we can use a strong mission statement to communicate the core of our work in just a few lines. To serve these purposes, mission statements must be carefully crafted. History has seen few more exacting wordsmiths than the great haiku poets, and nonprofits can learn much from them.

Haiku

Poetry is reductionism at its most powerful, cutting away everything from an image except the content of a few words, but leaving its complexity intact. Haiku, the Japanese form consisting of only 3 short lines (totaling just 17 total syllables) exemplifies this reductionism. Consider the following haiku by Matsuo Basho, one of the form’s preeminent authors, translated by former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass.1

The old pond—furuike ya
a frog jumps in,kawazu tobikomu
sound of watermizu no oto

With remarkable precision (the original Japanese poem includes only seven words), Basho establishes not only a concrete image, but also a sense of our fleeting impact before the immensity of the universe. Without diving too deeply into the pond of literary interpretation, we can see that Basho uses his 17 syllables fully, presenting multiple meanings. In fact, the Buddhist priest Moran wrote in 1765 that this poem “is indescribably mysterious, emancipated, profound and delicate. One can understand it only with years of experience.”2

Basho’s haiku is an excellent exam