How to avoid mission creep

The first step in organizing a nonprofit is identifying the mission. Keeping an organization true to that mission is one of the most challenging, important tasks management faces.

Mission – the charitable purpose identified as the core function of an organization informs and influences every action and decision of a nonprofit. The mission statement must simultaneously be focused, forward-thinking and flexible.

For example, Kiva, a nonprofit that facilitates small loans, has this simple statement, “We are a nonprofit organization with a mission to connect people through lending to alleviate poverty.” The statement says who they are, what they do and what they hope to achieve.

Notice that geographic boundaries, program limits or loan amounts are not mentioned. That gives Kiva latitude to adapt their programs and services to new opportunities and changing conditions without suffering “mission creep.”

Mission creep occurs when an organization takes on new activities that lie slightly outside the core purpose. Gradually, as efforts and resources flow in that direction, the organization’s outcomes shift.

The temptation for mission creep usually comes when funding is tight. A new opportunity presents itself, and the nonprofit finds itself following the money.

Mission creep might involve new constituencies, programs or geographic locations. It is different than planned growth and development because creep pulls attention from central functions and dilutes impact. Staff members find themselves confused and conflicted. Perhaps the new programs lie outside their skill sets.

The first safeguard is the right mission statement. It’s acceptable to modify an existing statement. It should be reviewed every five years or so, as part of a strategic planning process.

The important thing is to create a statement that is achievable and provides clear parameters. An organization’s unique capabilities and position in the universe of nonprofit activities should be taken into account.

Reining in efforts that are spread too thin can deepen impact and strengthen the organization. By providing a clear picture of purpose and goals, a strong mission statement will engage and energize stakeholders, donors, clients and staff. Keep it succinct so people remember it.

To stay focused and guard against mission creep, a process to evaluate new program and service opportunities can be useful. Rather than jumping on brainstorms or invitations, an idea is evaluated according to an organization’s criteria.

The following five-point process can be adapted to almost any type of nonprofit. First used in the New Hampshire Small Business Development Center, this outline can also be used as a format for strategic and action plans.

  • Mission – The first step is to review the proposed project in light of the mission. Does it fall within the mission? Will it create positive impact for clients? Is it a logical fit for existing programs or services? Define the project as thoroughly as possible, including scope, timeline and deliverables. Be sure it fulfills existing, emerging or unmet client needs. Regarding competing opportunities, where does this one fall in terms of impact and leverage of existing efforts?
  • Partnerships – Partners, whether funders, stakeholders, agencies, universities or peer organizations, are essential to nonprofit success. They bring opportunity, diverse skill sets, credibility and complementary activities. Evaluate the project in light of partnerships, both those already involved and possible new ones. Will the project strengthen or erode partnerships? If the opportunity is presented by another entity, evaluate how working with that partner will affect existing key relationships.
  • Funding – Develop a budget for the project. Will additional staff or contractors be needed? Where will funding come from? Consider sustainability – i.e., keeping the project going once initial funding is gone. Be wary of hidden administrative and management costs. Each new project costs the organization in time and money. The net gain should be positive. If it isn’t, but the project is impossible to refuse, then at least the decision can be made understanding the true cost. In the best case, the project opens up new appropriate and mission-supportive funding avenues and long-term relationships.
  • Organizational impact – Identify the staff and other organizational resources needed to implement the project. Does existing staff have time or will new people or contractors be needed? Does the staff have the interest and expertise needed? Yes, people can be assigned but reluctant stewardship of a project is a ticket to underperformance and failure. Evaluate the proposed project in terms of organizational development goals. Is it the direction the organization wants to go? Is it innovative? How will it position the organization among peers and with the board and funding sources?
  • Communication and implementation – Implementing a new project requires communication – among staff, to clients and with partners. Evaluate the communication strategy and commitment needed to make the project a success. Will the organization be able to adequately communicate, promote and report on the project?

These guidelines are suggestions, and each organization should identify its own specific criteria for project acceptance, further study or rejection. By creating a systematic process with the mission in mind, the projects with the best fit will be easily identified