Reflecting on Our Mission

Enter the new year with purpose and strategy

January 2, 2020

As we move forward into 2020, it is worthwhile to stop, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves those perennial questions about why we exist, what we are meant to accomplish, and by what strategies.

Like other nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations, ALA exists because we seek to accomplish a mission, initially defined in ALA’s Constitution, “to promote library service and librarianship.” That critical social purpose was later more expansively stated in ALA Policy Manual, ­section A.1.2: “The mission of the American Library Association is to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” Like other nonprofits, our mission is meant to make a difference for society.

We are, additionally, a particular kind of nonprofit, tax-exempt organization: an association. We are a membership organization—based on the belief that individuals coming together with purpose and strategy provide the critical force for social improvement and achieving a mission.

ALA members—librarians and library staff from a growing range of backgrounds, library trustees, Friends and advocates, leaders of library-related businesses—are at our organizational core, working collaboratively with ALA staff, external allies, and stakeholders.

So why should we stop periodically to examine what seems obvious to so many of us? In Mission Impact: Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, Robert M. Sheehan Jr., academic director at University of Maryland’s business school, outlines a “mission accomplishment” approach to articulating and measuring impact.

Sheehan defines carrying out a mission as the “core purpose” of an organization, and ­nonprofits must measure the progress toward achieving that mission.

He defines “mission gap”—which we should collectively seek to close—as the difference between the ideal and the current reality.

So as we begin 2020 together, it is a good time to consider and talk with one another about our community aspirations.

  • Where are we succeeding (and where are we failing) in achieving our mission?
  • Where are we succeeding (and where are we failing) in achieving those overarching goals that mark our major roads to mission achievement: advocacy; equity, diversity, and inclusion; information policy; and professional and leadership development?
  • Now that we’re almost 20 years into the 21st century, if we were to revisit our mission, how would we organize the Association today to achieve that mission and accomplish our strategic directions and goals?
  • Where are new opportunities for mission achievement?
  • What new internal capabilities do we need to develop?
  • Do we need to establish new short-term “stretch” goals related to our mission and organization?
  • How do our goals, initiatives, and plans fit together to form a coherent strategy?

Each of us brings to this community a unique perspective, based on our individual lived experience. To be an effective force, to improve the society in which we live through striving to achieve our mission, it isn’t enough for each of us to individually engage in year-end reflection; we need to talk with—and listen to—one another, to reflect together, to craft a shared community narrative, and to then move confidently into the new year.


Mary Ghikas, ALA executive director

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Mary Ghikas, ALA executive director

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