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!