When Nonprofit Missions Get Muddled

When Nonprofit Missions Get Muddled

By: Eugene Fram

It happens over time. A passionately conceived mission starts to drift from its original intentions. Stakeholders begin to view a nonprofit’s purposes from a different angle. There is a discrepancy between how the organization is committed to act and external perceptions of its current actions. Nonprofit boards need to be on the alert to such misalignments that can go unnoticed in the perceptual “fog” of daily challenges.

A good start would be a five year review of how others see the organization, i.e. volunteers, funders, clients, members, etc. The study can be conducted by an outside firm or developed internally by analyzing imperfect metrics. (See this article: http://bit.ly/OvF4ri). Based on those findings, nonprofits can either be assured that the perceptual status quo is congruent with the mission as stated– or, if there are material inside/outside differences, take steps to begin to rectify the discrepancies. These can range from mission modifications to a complete mission overhaul. Here are some considerations:

• Is the name of your organization confusing? Take the Family Service organization, for example, multipurpose human services agencies that, in some cases, were being perceived as resources for family planning. A few organizations’ first move to reinforce their stated mission was to change their names to Families First.

• Is your mission statement clear and concise? Does the wording represent your core objectives? Is it targeted to the right clients? Has it been highlighted in both written and digital output? A university’s mission may be to develop its students’ intellectual growth over a college time period. Conversely, the student/parent perception may see a degree as a conduit to a good job. The school, in this instance, is obliged to better represent its mission statement to convey its rationale—or modify its mission to redirect its academic trajectory.

• Societal and demographic needs are constantly evolving. The former Elderhostel changed its direction significantly when it sought to attract a younger population and renamed itself “Road Scholar.” Although it’s important to accommodate a variety of new initiatives, the question is– do they fit within the organization’s framework? It’s obvious that a nonprofit can’t be all things to all people.

• Funders, foundations and indeed, all supporters should be strongly aligned with your organization’s mission. They need to buy into your passion for the cause.

• Mission change is a serious step that calls for deliberation and ultimately consensus. But differences between internal and stakeholders’ mission perceptions must be resolved; otherwise an internal hubris seeps into the nonprofit’s environment.

Since little seems to be static in the 21st century, the “muddled” mission is ripe for change!


  1. Hi Eugene
    An interesting topic, in my experience many non-profit organisations suffer from what I call “Mission Drift” I have found that there are lots of reasons for this including;
    – Change of original personnel and a lack of knowledge of original reasons for starting the organisation
    – External change, making the original mission unfit for purpose
    – The original need/role no longer exists
    – Organisations chasing funding that may keep the organisation going but is outside of their original Mission Statement (this is a major reason for “Mission Drift”
    – The need to keep the organisation going, becomes the main driver (self perpetuation)
    – And this is all compounded by organisations not reviewing their Mission Statement on a regular basis.

    Change is good but it needs to be managed, risks need to be understood and the whole organisation needs to ensure that the mission statement and all supporting information is clear and actually reflects what the organisation is there to do.

    As a facilitator, I find that many organisations do not see the importance of their mission statement. Many have never reviewed their original statement and most have never measured their existing organisation against their mission statement. Once they have gone through this exercise organisation get a much clearer feeling for where they are and what they need to do to ensure success in the future.

    Best wishes


  2. I agree with Mark that mission drift often happens when organizations seek funding. Many foundations require “new” programming each funding cycle and organizations stray to comply. It is a problem. I also have seen such straying when organizations try to increase visibility and engage in tactics that are deemed relevant and popular, but are not always “on mission.” A thoughtful process to refresh an organization’s branding that is mission-centric is often very helpful.


    1. I agree that mission creep can be a real problem. You may be interested in these articles and links.

      Blog site http://bit.ly/yfRZpz Book: http://amzn.to/eu7nQl

      http://bit.ly/OvF4ri http://bit.ly/13Dsd3v


      The nonprofit governance model in the book is based on: building trust between the board and management, eliminating redundant board committees; eliminating board micromanagement;
      focusing the board on policy & strategy and having a robust board evaluation focused on outcomes and impacts, not processes. It has been adopted or adopted by
      thousands of nonprofit boards.


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