If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.
– E. Joseph Cossman
Volume 76 | Issue 1
January 2008

Developing a Mission Statement that Is Real, Not Rhetoric

Gregory T. Wilkins

During the beginning of the 2006–07 academic year, the Campus Involvement department at Washington State University underwent a reorganization with new leadership. Some chose to leave, while others had additional duties and responsibilities given to them.

At about the same time, in preparation for the university’s 2009 accreditation, each unit was required to provide a copy of its mission statement and goals. Campus Involvement had a mission statement, but not one that corresponded to the new shape and vision of the department. It had been written five years ago when the office was created and had some basic components the team liked, but overall it was antiquated and did not reflect the current organization.

The department decided it was time to revisit the mission statement and perhaps write a new one. After building a team, defining goals of the process, gathering examples, asking questions, identifying what was realistic to accomplish, and writing and refining, Campus Involvement developed a mission statement that is real, not rhetoric.

Step 1: Build a team

Before the team could develop a revised mission statement, it needed to have the right people in the right positions and to be headed in the right direction. Jim Collins (2001), in his book “Good to Great,” speaks of first who, then what. It’s not what your organization is about, but who will get you there. He says:
We expected that good-to-great leaders would begin by setting a new vision and strategy. We found instead that they first got the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats—and then they figured out where to drive it. The old adage “People are your most important asset” turns out to be wrong. People are not your most important asset. The right people are. (Collins, 2001, p. 13)

Gardner (1990) states the most critical step in a renewal process, like building a new mission statement,  is “the release of talent and energy” from within team members (p. 136). As he notes, “Nothing is more vital to the renewal of an organization than the arrangements by which able people are nurtured and moved into positions where they can make their greatest contribution” (Gardner, 1990, p. 127).
This had been realized through new leadership in the department; and once the Campus Involvement team was in place, it forged ahead with a focus on articulating its mission.

Step 2: Define goals for the process

You may ask yourself, “Why should a group bother revisiting their mission statement if they already have one?” Simply put, a mission statement should answer the question, “Why does this organization exist?” And just as important, it should provide a compelling reason for its existence. As Komives, Lucas, and McMahon (1998) assert, “The contribution the organization makes to the campus, community, or world needs to be articulated in a way that is enticing to potential participants and motivational to those who have already joined the organization” (p. 207).

A mission statement is a brief description of a company or other organization’s purpose. It typically explains what the organization provides to its members, in general terms, to which most of the employees can relate. Although a company might use its mission statement as an advertising slogan, a more common use is to remind executives and employees of the overall goal they are expected to pursue. In higher education, a mission statement “can be based on religious, ideological, or philosophical beliefs about human potential, teaching, and learning” (Kuh, Schuh, Whitt, & Associates, 1991, p. 41).

Some Campus Involvement team members were excited about this challenge, while others were a bit circumspect. Many people find writing a mission statement daunting or painful, but it does not have to be angst ridden. However, it is a process that takes time, energy, vision, and commitment. To move forward in this process requires self examination and knowing your organization. The Ancient Greek aphorism “Know yourself” (gnothi seauton) is still a viable leadership philosophy in this endeavor. What does your organization represent? Who does it serve? What does it value?

Knowing oneself helps clarify who we are to ourselves and to others. While we might act without knowing who we are, in the long run, it affects our relationships and how we interact with others within and outside our group. Developing or revisiting a mission statement will help an organization clarify or reaffirm its purpose. This was why Campus Involvement wanted to be sure its mission was clear, articulate, and actionable. A mission statement helps faculty, administrators, students, alumni, and friends understand what the organization is trying to accomplish and can help build loyalty among constituents.

Step 3: Gather examples

There were many examples to choose from when reviewing mission statements. To get team members involved, each person was asked to find a mission statement they like. It could be from a not-for-profit, major company, local business, or school, etc. The team then reviewed these statements as a group. What about the mission statements did staff members like? Is what the organization states true to how it works, acts, and makes decisions? Participants were asked to highlight these areas in a group discussion and use it as a springboard into writing a mission statement.

In a process like Campus Involvement’s, team members also can examine general mission statements used for similar organizations. For example, the focus of work in student affairs is:

To assist students to know themselves—who they are and their purpose in life—to be self-aware in the global life; to develop their intellectual abilities; to cultivate social, civic, and moral responsibilities; and to examine faith claims. (Braskamp, Trautvetter, & Ward, p. 45, ¶ 1)

Under this umbrella, focus on what you do, your purpose, what makes you unique on campus. More specific to college unions:

The union is the community center of the college, serving students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests. By whatever form or name, a college union is an organization offering a variety of programs, activities, services, and facilities that, when taken together, represent a well-considered plan for the community life of the college.
The union is an integral part of the educational mission of the college. (ACUI, 1996, ¶ 1–2)

Campus Involvement also considered WSU’s university-wide mission statement and the division of student affairs’. It was the team’s responsibility to see how its work reflected both of those broader missions. The WSU mission statement is:

As a public, land-grant, and research institution of distinction, Washington State University enhances the intellectual, creative, and practical abilities of the individuals, institutions, and communities that we serve by fostering learning, inquiry, and engagement.

Key components Campus Involvement wanted to address were learning, creativity, and engagement. What was the unit doing to enhance the larger university’s mission?
The WSU Office of Student Affairs’ statement is:

The Office of Student Affairs is committed to assisting Washington State University to realize its vision to offer a premier undergraduate experience; conduct and stimulate world-class research, scholarship and art; and provide an exemplary working and learning environment.

There were similar elements (learning, scholarship, art), and Campus Involvement needed to reflect components of the university and division statements into its own mission statement. In addition, the unit also wanted to reflect on the variety of activities performed and constituents served.

From all of these various statements, the team could begin to identify characteristics, themes, and even words to include in the new statement.

Step 4: Ask questions

Team members next did qualitative research to refine the department’s purpose. Campus Involvement gathered thoughts and feedback from students, staff, faculty, and others. The team reviewed departmental artifacts—programs, marketing materials, student leadership training and staff development resources, website and links, and collaborations across the curriculum. In addition, participants were provided the ACUI Core Competencies for the Profession (2005) as a base.

To give the organization a framework, Campus Involvement staff members started asking questions of themselves, of others, and regarding the department’s collateral materials: Was who the group thought they were truly reflected in services and interaction with students? Was what the organization doing benefiting the educational community? Did how the team spent time, money, and resources mirror who Campus Involvement said it was? And if not, what did the group need to do to realign? How was the organization going to tell its story and celebrate success? And in the future, where was the team going to go with strategic planning, vision, and alignment with their mission? While not all the questions had a direct or easy answer, the discussions fostered moved the team ahead in the process.

Step 5: Identify what is realistic to accomplish

Often mission statements become rhetoric because they are too broad and not focused on what one organization can actually accomplish. When revising a mission statement, consider the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern with your team (Covey 1989). Stephen Covey (1989) speaks to this concept in his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” In looking at ways to influence and change our surroundings, it is helpful to notice where we focus our time and energy. This will help drive the mission statement. Everyone has a range of concerns—health, family, work, retirement, etc. These are the things in our lives that make up our Circle of Concern (Covey, 1989). 

As we look at those things within our Circle of Concern, it becomes apparent that there are some things over which we have no real control and others that we can do something about. We can identify those concerns in a smaller Circle of Influence (Covey, 1989).

Covey (1989) suggests that problems fall in one of three areas: direct control (problems involving our own behavior), indirect control (problems involving other people’s behavior), or no control (problems we can do nothing about, such as our past, or situational realities). A proactive approach is the first step to the solution of all three kinds of problems within the Circle of Influence.

Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence. They work on things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging, and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase (Covey, 1989).

The Campus Involvement staff looked at how the Circle of Influence could make a difference in developing their mission statement. Through what within the Circle of Influence might Campus Involvement affect change? By being positive and enlarging the team’s influence on campus, the organization would magnify and grow, affecting the Circle of Concern, mainly students. Empowering the staff also would proportionately benefit the educational community.

The focus of the team was what within the Circle of Influence might be reflected in the mission statement that speaks to the people served and tenets by which the organization would gauge success.

Step 6: Write and refine

During a leadership retreat, thoughts, ideas, and brainstorms from participants were brought together. This culminated into a draft document of what the Campus Involvement mission might look like. Using this as a foundation, unit organizers put their team’s feedback into the working draft. Discussion revolved around what each part of the document meant and if it reflected Campus Involvement as an organization. Items were added, subtracted, statements rephrased, and the document put aside for more conversation and later discussion. The team buffed and polished the different ideas as the organization moved from a tarnished statement to one that mirrored what Campus Involvement is today.

According to Braskamp, Trautvetter, and Ward (2006):

Colleges fulfill their mission and identity by continuously polishing rather than varnishing. The entire community polishes to reveal the core, keep, or restore the essence of what it is to be. They know the core has a centeredness and a rootedness. Their work from a deep internalized commitment to maintain the core identity and character is what is being polished and have pride in the process and the product. Their task of polishing is internally motivated, and their “being” generates and drives their “doing,” which in turn is mutually reinforcing. (p. 196)

For the Campus Involvement team, the process took approximately five months to complete. While creating the mission statement, ideas went from one extreme to the next. Some found the process painstakingly difficult, while others were rejuvenated. From visionary thoughts to discussion on word choice and positioning, the team worked to solidify its base ideas and form a working statement.

In looking to the future, the process was meaningful and aided the staff in goal development, performance assessment, and orienting time and energy as to how the organization was involved with Washington State University students, staff, and collaborations with other units, departments, and registered student groups. In addition, it brought the unit together in conversation working toward a common goal. Formal discussion was impactful, while additional time alone and in smaller groups allowed participants time to reflect and make suggestions.
The graduate and undergraduate staff as well as volunteers participated in the process. The office encouraged each of them to offer suggestions, ideas, and feedback. By creating openness for all participants, Campus Involvement created a statement that was more encompassing of what everyone valued.

While challenging, the overall experience was well worth the energy it took to produce. To that end, the team is proud to state:

Washington State University Campus Involvement Mission

Campus Involvement is committed to developing critically reflective and socially engaged participants, effective communicators, rigorous scholars and artists, and passionate leaders, who work and collaborate on behalf of their local and global communities. In fulfilling this mission, we foster:

  • A campus that embraces diversity by encouraging a culture of understanding, belonging, and civility
  • A learning community with close student and academic engagement, creating partnerships for discovery
  • Diverse and innovative opportunities for the development of global leaders that are committed to civic engagement and social justice
  • An environment that promotes continuous improvement, where everyone is valued and respected
  • Responsible stewardship of resources
  • Creativity and critical thinking in problem solving
  • A campus where tradition and change are shared and celebrated

Now that the mission statement has been written, what happens next? What is the responsibility of Campus Involvement at WSU? Can the team walk away from it now that the activity is completed? No, otherwise it will once again go from real to rhetoric.


The mission will drive expectations, be a standard of excellence, and provide a model of how the unit operates in creating a purposeful campus culture. As Braskamp, Trautvetter, and Ward (2006) recommend, it will be used to invoke a sense of purpose, determine priorities, be value added, and link leadership with ownership. The Campus Involvement mission will be put into practice through staff training and revisited throughout the year so that the team knows what the mission is, where to find it, and how it shapes the organization. It will help form the revised performance evaluation as a measurement for individual and collective success. In addition, it will used as a foundation for staff when working with students and the community in programming efforts.

The active mission statement will be a guide for all participants—students, staff, community—to determine whether what Campus Involvement is doing reflects what the organization says they value. For example take music programming. If programming has been focused on a specific community or topic, what components of reflection and engagement will be used that celebrate the broad and diverse groups that Campus Involvement represents? While hip-hop may be popular, what can Campus Involvement do to help initiate discussion and reflection? Or even better, should most music be hip-hop if it is not reflecting the diversity of students’ musical interests? Programming will be charged with being diverse, engaged with other student groups and academia, innovative while honoring traditions, continuously improving, and financially responsible. These objectives will be mirrored in what the organization does and will be transparent to the larger campus community.

The mission statement will help reorganize the group as a professional team by holding Campus Involvement accountable, and it will aid the organization to review budget allocations, how teams are staffed, and develop strategic goals. It will be a tool that is utilized daily as an instrument for reflection, improvement, and celebration. It will be real, not rhetoric.


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Braskamp, L.A. , Trautvetter, L.C., & Ward, K. (2006). Putting students first: How colleges develop students purposefully. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company Inc.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 habits of highly effective people. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Gardner, J.W. (1990). On leadership. New York: The Free Press.
Komives, S.R., Lucas, N., & McMahon, T.R. (1998). Exploring leadership: For college students who want to make a difference. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kuh, G.D., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, Z.E., J. & Associates (1991). Involving colleges: Successful approaches to fostering student learning and development outside the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Washington State University. (2007). Mission statement. Retrieved on June 27, 2007, from http://www.wsu.edu/StrategicPlanning/strategic-plan.html.
Washington State University, Division of Student Affairs. (2007). Mission statement. Retrieved June 27, 2007, from http://www.studentaffairs.wsu.edu.