history pragmatic historian

44 Pages & a Long-Standing Mission

Remember when PBS was THE domain of documentaries? No longer. Aside from cable, which we cut years ago, Netflix has a fabulous rotation of documentaries on all sorts of topics, even arcane, who-would-ever-think-to-make-a-movie-about-that? documentaries.

A few nights ago, my husband and I watched 44 Pages, a documentary about Highlights magazine. Remember Highlights? If you have visited any doctor’s or dentist’s office in the past 6 or 7 decades, you have likely flipped through Highlights, especially when you were a kid. The magazine has been in production for over 70 years and is known for its kid-friendly articles, poems, images, and puzzles. Oh, yeah, the puzzles! My favorite part of the magazine and, even though I’m in my fifth decade now, I’d still pick up the magazine to check out the puzzles if I found one laying around.

The magazine’s longevity is amazing, especially given that it contains no advertising and the Garry and Caroline Myers family that started the magazine in 1946 is still involved. (The magazine has a thorough archive – woot! – and it’s run by a family member.)

The magazine’s tagline, which expresses its mission and vision, hasn’t changed in the past 70 years. It is “Fun with a Purpose.”

There’s a lesson in this for any organization trying to brand itself. Aside from expressing the core of its purpose, Highlights has been able to change and grow with that tagline. It has also gained the trust of readers and their parents through the consistency of that long-standing mission.

When I watched the documentary, I was struck with how seriously the editors and other creative staff of the magazine took this mission. Every detail – and I mean every detail, right down to misplaced commas – was examined and reexamined and tweaked in order to make the magazine the best it could be for readers.

As a creative person with very definite design and writing sensibilities, I was trying to figure out how all these creative people remained so agreeable with each other. Why weren’t they squabbling with one another over their personal visions for the magazine? Perhaps the documentary chose not to focus on this, but I suspect the mission and audience behind Highlights are what helps everyone get along.  You know, it’s for the kids. And they don’t want to disappoint that audience.

Did you know that Highlights staff answers every letter submitted by a child? According to the documentary, that’s about 3,000 individual responses per year. That’s dedication.

And that’s what a spot-on, long-standing mission expressed ethically will do for an organization in terms of getting buy-in from staff. The history of the expression of that purpose is passed along and reinforced over time, so that all staff understand they are working toward a larger purpose that will transcend them.

If you are starting a new organization, think long and hard about what tagline/mission you want to adopt. Is it one that will carry the organization for the next century?

If you are considering changing the mission or tagline of your existing organization, consider whether your change will destroy the years of respect and trust your organization has built with audiences because of that mission. Can you alter it in such a way that the crucial purpose of the organization is still present within updated language?