Staying on Track: How Do Nonprofit Leaders Avoid Mission Creep?

Success begets success — and as nonprofit organizations grow and develop, they often face a problem of purpose: mission creep.

Mission Creep happens when nonprofits get off track from their founding principlesMission creep happens when an organization strays from the reason why it was created. Let’s say you run a food bank in a suburban county. Creating a community garden in one of the towns you serve would be an example of mission creep. Yes, it’s a great idea that dovetails nicely with the work you already do. But it’s not a food bank.

Mission creep can be beneficial to an organization, especially if it’s already on solid financial footing and achieving its mission. Yet, in most cases, mission creep drains time and resources away from a group’s original intent. The following are some strategies for avoiding mission creep and building your organization’s success at what it does best.

Keep it simple

Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kim Jonker and William F. Meehan III point out that nonprofits who successfully avoid mission creep follow a simple, focused mission statement. They cite the Rural Development Institute, first founded in 1967, as a good example. RDI’s mission statement calls for securing land rights for the world’s poorest people, those who live on less than $2 a day.

That simple statement gives RDI a framework for determining the rural-development projects it supports and those it does not. This single-minded focus has helped RDI achieve land reform in countries throughout Africa, Asia and the former Soviet Union, helping millions of rural farm families to escape lives of severe poverty.

Clarity is essential to a mission statement. When the statement is nebulous, employees, benefactors and volunteers will have a difficult time remembering the organization’s main purpose. By making it easier to keep those essentials top of mind, you’ll all stay true to your roots and avoid mission creep.

Distinguish between important causes and special talents

“Ending world hunger” is a laudable aim, but it’s also a bit lofty for all but the largest, richest nonprofits. A better strategy in developing your mission is to come up with a niche within a larger, global problem — preferably one that has been neglected by other nonprofits.

Your mission must demonstrate that your team can apply talent, knowhow and passion to solving this important unmet need. One of the pioneers in social investing is Kiva, a virtual organization that connects micro-lenders with worthwhile projects to support throughout the globe. It doesn’t disburse donations — it connects people with monetary loans.

Kiva’s mission statement is also simple. “We are a non-profit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty,” it states. “Leveraging the Internet and a worldwide network of microfinance institutions, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to help create opportunity around the world.”

Stating that small number is essential because it encourages people of modest means to lend small amounts to the needy entrepreneurs worldwide. Since its founding in 2005, Kiva has provided loans to 1 million people and has attracted approximately that many lenders.

Know when to say ‘no’

Nonprofit organizations are created to serve public needs. Highly successful nonprofits enjoy a high public profile that invites requests for support from myriad worthy causes. This forces nonprofit leaders and managers into a role that might make them uncomfortable: that of naysayer.

Your board of directors and established donors expect you to keep the organization mission-focused. While broadening your organization’s focus might be attractive in the short term, it can also lead your group to become bureaucratic and unresponsive to clients. In the worst cases, organizations get pulled into supporting causes that have little to do with their main missions. That attractive new project drains precious resources, both human and monetary, away from your group’s main goals.

Make room for an exception

Let’s say your organization has a benefactor with strong ties to both your organization and to the community. This benefactor (let’s call her “Mrs. B”) is also quite well-heeled financially, and has been a trusted funding source over the years.

One day at a board meeting, Mrs. B throws you a curveball. She wants to create a new program for your organization to spearhead, and she wants to subsidize it. This project is related to your group’s mission, though just tangentially. What might your organization decide to do?

You could stick to your mission guns and turn down the proposal, but that might risk alienating one of your group’s most important supporters. In the worst-case scenario, she might take her idea and her money somewhere else. Your best course would be to accept the proposal but strive to make sure its efforts complement, rather than compete with, the central work and mission of your organization. Then, work together to ensure the work on that project creates synergy for your entire organization.

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