mission creep

By Richard Marker

That is a surprise, you say. Don’t you usually help funders develop a focus for their funding? Don’t you help them understand how a good strategy helps develop an approach that helps philanthropists and foundations know when to say “no,” and when to say “yes”? Doesn’t a funding mission help determine whether we are achieving the impact we want our funding investments to achieve? Wouldn’t you advise that “mission creep” dilutes focus and impact, and ultimately limits one’s effectiveness as a funder?

In general, the more focused, the more likely we feel in control of our funding, we feel that we know why we are doing so, we know what to expect from our funding. And the more focused, the more likely that we trust the data and evidence we gather from our monitoring reports, site visits, and systematic evaluations.

The strength of this becomes evident when external factors force hard decisions. The Great Recession forced lots of us to take a good hard look at all those grantees. How did they get there? Our so called priorities had become a very porous barrier to funding entry. Of course, during the go-go years when our assets were growing at a fast clip, what did we have to lose? Sure those projects didn’t fit exactly, but our regular grantees didn’t suffer. But, suddenly the money wasn’t there. Suddenly all those mission and priority statements and guidelines came into play. As the money started coming back, many of us, burned, worked hard at maintaining the discipline.

At the same time, impact philanthropy, a very broad agenda discussed in more depth elsewhere, became the abiding mantra of the moment. If it means anything, it means bang for the philanthropic buck. Evidence, data, systematic review all are essential tools in the impact toolbox. Once we see our decisions being driven by impact outcomes, it is hard to ignore the significance of this information in decision making. And many funders pride themselves on their strict evidence-based approach.

Even if these factors are not the driving force in our decision making, having a clearly articulated set of guidelines certainly makes our work a lot easier. If we are only reactive to any and all requests, it is very frustrating to have to say no to the many valid requests without second guessing ourselves. Or have contentious board and family constantly lobbying for personal priorities. Getting all that out of the way before the inevitable flood of requests makes sorting through the docket go a lot easier.

There are lots of practical and conceptual reasons to resist mission creep. Why then do I say that it sometimes is a smart thing to do?

  1. Evidence-based grantmaking ultimately works against innovation. After all, by definition innovation means “new” and evidence means that there is history. There are too many examples of some of the most interesting problem solving coming from risk tolerant grantmaking that would never have made the cut if evidence was an absolute condition.
  2. Evidence based grantmaking can lead to a tendency to believe that we know everything that is happening. But sometimes some out of the box thinking comes from surprising and unexpected places. If we are too rigid in defining what fits, we may be missing really interesting things.
  3. All funders and foundations need to leave space for change and growth. Even highly sophisticated and experienced funders can get in a rut. By leaving space for the periodic “mission creep,” funders can test out whether our well-trodden path has become too worn, too passé, too easy. By going outside of our comfort zone, we may find that it is time to adjust, rethink, re-direct, …or stay the course.
  4. Sometimes there really are exigencies that deserve an “exception.” For some, it may be keeping fragile nonprofits afloat as government funding dries up. For others, it may be a natural or human caused disaster. For still others, it may be a funder collaborative with real up-side potential. And I am sure that you can add to this list.

Now, I know that you realize I am not advocating that we adapt a new anarchic approach, throwing our carefully honed priorities and guidelines away. I am advocating that we be careful about the apparent wisdom of pure evidence-based grant making and of too rigid a long term strategy of our approach to our decision making. Properly used, it may keep us more agile and responsive without jeopardizing our hard won discipline.

Richard Marker advises funders and foundations on their philanthropy strategy through Wise Philanthropy, and teaches philanthropists and foundation professionals at both Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy and NYU Academy for Funder Education.