The Importance of Mission Statements
How do you describe your program to funders? What stories do you tell, and how do they affect your students? These were some of the questions explored in a session called “How We Talk about Our Programs: The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” that I facilitated alongside Dr. Tia Harvey of Accent Pontiac at the El Sistema USA Symposium in January 2020.
Some background: The Harmony Project was founded as a public health intervention in 2001. Since 2007, the year I started with Harmony, we’ve developed many cost-sharing partnerships with organizations ranging from entire school districts and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to after-school providers, mental health providers, local universities, and the Sheriff’s Department Youth Activities League. Today we serve 3,500 students in 16 communities across Los Angeles and Orange County. We have also been expanding nationally since 2011 through affiliations with programs in other cities.
Our original mission was to promote the healthy growth and development of children and build healthier communities through music. However, we found it harder and harder to quantify “healthy,” and identify evidence that we were achieving it. In order to appeal to donors and foundations in a saturated philanthropic market, we often bolstered our mission by emphasizing the negative experiences our students face, by “othering” or labeling them. I felt increasingly uncomfortable as I listened to our founder and some board members talk about our students. After one fundraising event, a student said to me, “I never knew I was poor until today.”
Since 2008, when we began a college scholarship fund, we’ve awarded over 400 college scholarships, and at every fundraising event, we feature alumni speakers. As they tell their stories, I am always moved by their resilience, commitment, and strength.
Why, then, have we felt that to appeal to our donors we had to play up the violence, underachievement, and low graduation rates in their neighborhoods? Did we really have to use deficit-based language about our students—“under”-served, “under”-privileged, at-“risk”? When we buy into that language, we are complicit in the narratives it is our job to change.
By August 2019, we knew our mission statement had to change. Instead of stating what we thought donors needed to hear, we decided to focus on five key elements. I offer them here in the hope that they may be useful to others who are seeking similar change.
- A measurable goal. This should be concrete and measurable. For us, this goal is high school graduation and matriculation into postsecondary education. We know that higher education, while not for everyone, is a good proxy for success in life.
- A clearly articulated problem to be solved. This problem should not be attributed to the students or their communities themselves, but to systemic barriers society has created for them. For example: Only 22% of students from low-income communities earn a postsecondary degree, compared to 67% of their peers from high-income areas.
- A competitive differentiating diagnosis. Identify the complex systemic barriers to achievement and propose an ecosystem that would support overcoming them.
- A unique solution to the problem. What is our solution to this identified problem? For Harmony, it’s not just about teaching music, but also offering academic and social support.
- Evidence of the impact/results. We all know how hard it is to quantify our success as teaching artists. What are your indicators? For us, the important indicator is that 98% of Harmony Project high school seniors have graduated and gone to college.
Working from these five key elements, here’s what we came up with: Harmony Project harnesses the transformative power of music to increase access to higher education for students from historically disadvantaged communities, by removing systemic barriers to achievement through academic and social support.
Yes, it’s a mouthful. And yes, there were compromises made. But we can all agree on it.
And it could not have been timelier. Rampant police brutality, seen through the stark lens of a global pandemic, is now bringing the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront. While many organizations “check the boxes” for diversity, equity, and inclusion, we all need to ask: What are our actions saying? How many of our staff and teaching artists reflect the communities we serve? What actionable commitment is our organization making to anti-racism and social justice?
Finally: Is the language we use empowering to our students? It’s a truism that actions speak louder than words—but we are learning from our students that words are a form of action, as well.