Mission Creep: It’s in the House… What do we do?

Second in a Two-Part Series (you can read part 1 here)
By Avrum Lapin

Successful nonprofits are, by definition, mission driven. Mission creep can be gradual, an erosion over time of a nonprofit’s core, slowly drifting away. Or it can be a dramatic shift that occurs with a change in leadership or the acceptance of a new major gift. It often well-intentioned, as it can come from a desire and passion to serve more people or to expand the organization’s reach into the community.

Since nonprofits are often pulled in many different directions, it is hard to come to terms with the fact that this is the root of many problems. Unlike WedMD, there is no easy checklist to conclude if these symptoms actually signal this disease, but there is no harm in taking a hard look to determine if mission creep is a factor in the organization. Revisiting the mission often and having the Board and staff reassess it is a part of a healthy organization’s general practice. Remember, there is no correlation between an organization’s age and the connection to its core purpose. Reaffirmation or adjustment might happen – if called for – regardless of size, longevity, geography or sector served.

Signs of Mission Creep

Personal: Though nonprofit executives and professionals are often overworked, mission creep can make this situation worse. By pulling staff and leadership in too many directions, people feel mentally and emotionally fatigued and become less effective. If the “to do list” never seems to get shorter, it might be time to pull back and look at the bigger picture.

The dedicated nonprofit professionals who come to work each day are in part driven by their passion. As they become overwhelmed and less focused, their energy and drive may diminish. Unrealistic expectations caused by being pulled in too many directions will likely become a limiting factor in the nonprofit’s ability to meet its goals.

The impact of mission creep is real and can have disastrous effects on staff. The 2016 Nonprofit Employment Practices Survey published last year by GuideStar and Nonprofit HR revealed that turnover rates have generally increased among nonprofits, with the average rate growing from 16 to 19 percent between 2013 and 2015. In order to keep current staff productive and in place, creating a focused and values-drive organization is essential.

Too Many Words: The mission should be able to be explained in one sentence, maybe two. When the purpose and activities of the organization need a paragraph to explain there is a good chance that mission creep has set in. Explaining what the organization does and who it serves should be a simple task that everyone in the organization can do effectively and succinctly.

Confused Priorities: Often when an organization is experiencing mission creep, disconnect occurs between the staff and the Board or even amongst staff themselves as to where resources should be spent. In the absence of a clear vision or direction, the loudest, most determined voices might prevail, rather than the mission being a guide. The priorities should be able to be communicated consistently outside of the organization to funders, leaders, volunteers and the general public.

Loss of Original Support: If an organization has drifted too far away from its stated purpose, funders who were once core supporters may lose interest or push back. While renewal rates vary, if many longstanding supporters withdraw, it might be time to connect and find out if mission creep was one of the factors.

Righting the Ship

If leadership suspects that the nonprofit has drifted away from its core vision, it is important to act thoughtfully and carefully. To solve the problem, the solution cannot be to subtly drift back into place.

Get the Facts: It is important to understand the depth of the issue and the impact that it is having on the organization. How many staff members are dedicated to programs that are outside of the core mission? What is the revenue generated by those programs, in terms of fees, grants and restricted funds? Can the impact be measured?

In addition to internal facts, also critical is to understand the current environment. This is a good opportunity to understand which others might be working in the same space and to examine their programs and offerings. Perhaps there is overlap or another organization is serving the same population better. Conversely, there might be a gaping need that has not yet been addressed by any organization.

Refocus on the Mission: After gathering all of the information, leadership can make an informed decision about the next step. Perhaps it becomes clear that the mission needs to be revised and original programs need to be discontinued to make way for a new direction. The key is to define core competencies and decide how best to proceed. Whether creating a revised mission or refocusing on the original one, it is important to make sure that programs and strategies align. The goal is to consider the capacity to achieve desired results and impact first, and let things fall into place.

Syncing Internally and Get the Boardon Board:” Once it is clear that an updated mission must be considered, or a refocus on the existing mission is necessary, it is imperative for the staff and Board to start anew and be in sync from Step #1. Buy-in is necessary for the next steps to be embraced by the organization as a whole.

Engage Externally with Open Communications: The reason for making changes must be presented in a clear, factual and practical manner to external stakeholders once the internal adjustments have been decided upon. Open and transparent communications should be presented in the context of a fact-based solution.

Cut off Extraneous Programs: This is the most difficult part of the process. Letting go of staff and programs that no longer fit the vision can be painful and difficult.

This part of the process requires courage and must be rooted in practicality, not emotion. Professional staff who are good at their roles are the hardest to inform of the changes. Every effort can be made to reposition key professionals within an organization and to make the transition as smooth as possible. Another solution is to divest extraneous programs to other organizations that occupy similar space.

Though the changes that come along with repairing an organization’s mission are not easy, nonprofits that combat mission creep will ultimately be healthier and run more effectively in the future. By keeping a focus on impact and addressing the situation, nonprofit leaders can often readjust before the damage becomes too great or irreparable. Once mission creep is discovered, acting as quickly and strategically as possible is an imperative.

My colleagues and I are interested in your experiences, especially about this important topic. Let us know what you are thinking.

Avrum Lapin is President at The Lapin Group, LLC, based in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a full-service fundraising and management consulting firm for nonprofits. The Lapin Group inspires and leads US-based and international nonprofits seeking fund, organizational, leadership, and business development solutions, offering contemporary and leading-edge approaches and strategies. A Board member of the Giving Institute and a member of the Editorial Review Board of Giving USA, Avrum is a frequent contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com and speaker in the US and in Israel on opportunities and challenges in today’s nonprofit marketplace.

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