Sunday, September 06, 2009

Mission Drift: What Is It, Potential Impacts, & Recovery Methods

In everything that any organization does (for-profit or nonprofit) its mission statement, the clear statement that says what an organization does, for whom, how, and sometimes also why, and where; provides clarity, in the case for nonprofit organizations, for anyone and everyone who either volunteers with, works for, donates to, collaborates with, or considers requesting assistance from a nonprofit. The mission statement provides clarity for everyone about that specific nonprofit. It also provides a clear description (ideally) of what exactly the nonprofit is doing (or is supposed to be doing).

Mission drift is the term given when a nonprofit (or other type of entity) either finds that it has moved away from the organization's mission; or the organization consciously moves into a new direction from its mission statement. Sometimes this is by accident and not intended to occur and sometimes the organization means to change direction. This post is going to deal with the first scenario: when a nonprofit gets off message from its own mission statement.

I will state, here, though that if an organization intends to take its mission into a new direction, it is fine as long as the new direction is discussed and ratified by the board and that all considerations (discussions, research, studies, and considerations about the change) and the decision making are conducted per the nonprofit's Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws. There can then be a look taken at the current or old mission statement, once a direction is agreed upon, and it can be updated. This is a process (and a healthy one for any organization that wants to modernize, expand its work, etc.). Once a new mission statement is created, inform the IRS and the state and other governments your organization is registered with. The new mission should be then disseminated everywhere including to the community through a press release, at a minimum.

If mission drift occurs and its unintentional it potentially can confuse what the organization exists to do and for whom and how the work is to be conducted. This will create great confusion and possibly undo internal politics, etc. among the organization's volunteers and staff. Resources can be wasted on different factions within the organization working in different and conflicting areas, or on people attempting to get clarification or people attempting to clarify, themselves. Also, mission drift can confuse the community that the organization serves - and that community includes the nonprofit's donors, volunteers, including future potential new donors and volunteers. The potential risk in mission drift can actually be catastrophic to a nonprofit - especially in this economy when donors only want to give where their dollar will be mostly (usually at least 80% of each dollar) spent on an agency's programs, spent very efficiently (which requires skilled and experienced talent to be creating and implementing programs; and it requires planned out, funded, and budgeted programs), that will result in a real viable solution for the community (which requires follow through and program evaluation, meeting afterward to discuss evaluation findings, and making improvements as lessons are learned) for a program or service that will succeed and endure.

If, for instance, you are a brand new staff member who has just begun the executive director position at a nonprofit, and you soon discover that while there is a mission statement that everyone at this organization seems to know and is printed on the agency's brochures, fundraising letters, etc. - the actual work being conducted, for the beneficiary population is a bit broader and less or more than what the mission statement, itself, claims: mission drift has occurred. It's not the end of the world. The key, when mission drift occurs is to catch it and for the agency's leadership to take it on, proactively.

What can be done?

__ Conversations, listening, ideas, and more conversation. The staff leadership and board should sit down and talk. Not everyone will agree and that is O.K. Everyone, though, should be brought to the table to discuss the situation who is a stakeholder, internally, of any organizational department or operation.

__ Conduct fact finding. Ask a group of people randomly selected people from the organization's volunteers, clients, donors, and others working for other entities in the community who are familiar with your nonprofit to all answer a survey ( and other online survey services will allow surveys up to 10 questions to be created, implemented, and the data culled for free). Also, research what the beneficiary population that your nonprofit serves needs, now, based on your current work and most recent mission statement. I'm not stating, here, list what your nonprofit does. I'm saying, here, ask the beneficiary population that your agency serves 'what are your current needs, now', 'in your opinion, based on your experience, what could solve this issue', and 'what are potential barriers that you know of that might preclude you from getting or receiving this solution to this issue'. Neither study needs to be long, and all of the results must be tabulated and reviewed, but your agency needs to know the community's perception of the nonprofit (not just the internal staff's and volunteers' perceptions) of the organization.

__ Now, sit down and list everything that your agency is currently doing (programs, services, and products that it provides or sells related to the mission statement); and then list, too, all of the organization's current goals (e.g. planned achievements or goals that the organization plans to obtain and also any new programs, services, or products that are going to be launched shortly).

__ Having all of this information culled, tabulated, and disseminated to all key stakeholders - ask the volunteers and staff to review the studies and their findings and consider what the most recent mission statement was and its meaning, compare it to the community's perception of the nonprofit, and then also consider what the nonprofit is currently doing and what its short term and long term goals are. Now ask the stakeholders to account for differences, note them, and then begin to consider updating and modernizing the most recent mission statement to reflect what are really the nonprofit's current (actual) goals, vision, values, work, reasoning, etc. This begins the work in retooling a nonprofit's mission statement. Again, it's important, not quick, but very healthy and fruitful work for any nonprofit. The pains that any organization takes and goes through, in healthy change, pays off.

Any nonprofit willing to address issues within its organization, that takes the time to do the organizational work (not just the work of the mission statement, solely) is building a healthier, better, operation. Nonprofits are not just offices full of do-gooders: like any for-profit organization, a nonprofit is an operation and must run as a healthy organization or it will falter. If the organization's operations are not managed, overseen, and cared for the work of the 'do-gooders' becomes overshadowed by internal operations problems, sooner or later.

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