And while nonprofit staff and leadership greatly appreciated the advice on how to avoid mission creep, board members asked a key question that we did not get to cover in that initial article: “What if we’re already dealing with mission creep – how do we respond?”
So, in this article we are going to address mission creep from that perspective. What do you do when mission creep is already happening? How can you recognize it? And what do you do to stop it?
Is Mission Creep Already Happening?
How can you tell if your organization is already falling victim to mission creep? Look for these red flags that may signal mission creep:
Another Perspective on Mission Creep
The important thing to remember about the red flags listed above is that they are only warning signs that mission creep may be happening, not that it definitively is. For instance, in an article on rethinking mission creep Vu Le reminds us that there are times when it may make sense for an organization to expand into new areas very quickly when he explains,
Organizations led by marginalized communities often have broad missions, and this is sometimes hard for people to understand. This broadness is often seen as a weakness, a lack of organization, when in reality it is a culturally-relevant necessity. A decade ago I led an organization focused on serving the Vietnamese community in Seattle. We started with academic programs serving youth. We then branched into serving younger kids. Then we started a youth employment program. Then we helped their parents. Then we included helping elders vote. At multiple points colleagues told me, ‘Your mission is drifting. You should focus on one program and drop everything else.’ I would have loved that. It was a lot trying to run multiple programs and being told by funders that we didn’t seem to know what we were doing because we were doing too much. But these programs were what community members indicated they needed, and that they could not get from other nonprofits or from the government because of lack of trust or lack of cultural responsiveness. Many organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities don’t have the luxury to focus on one thing. What may seem like mission creep is just us responding to interconnected needs our constituents have indicated we should focus on.
How to Respond to Mission Creep
Boards, staff members, and donors are best poised to stop mission creep before it causes irreparable damage. Notice who isn’t included in that list? That’s right – EDs or CEOs. Why? Well, hard as it may be to hear it, executive leadership is often to blame for the kind of mission creep that is less about serving their community in new important ways and more about chasing the newest or most popular thing right now. However, the people overseeing the organization (board members), doing the work on the front lines (employees), and making the work possible (donors) often have the perspective needed to be a voice of reason when the organization starts to drift away from its core mission.
Advice for Employees
Often times, EDs and CEOs are the ones with the power to move mission creep projects forward, while employees doing the day-to-day work to keep programs running do not necessarily have the leverage needed to pump the brakes when leadership is moving too fast. This all too common scenario is why organizations need to have a way for employees to honestly report mission creep concerns and problems up the line. Relying on the people on the frontlines is a crucial strategy for ensuring that strategic decisions are in the best interest of the company respective to its available capacity and resources. Depending on the culture of the organization, this feedback can either be offered directly or anonymously by employees but should be taken seriously regardless of how it is received.
Advice for Board Members
On the other end of the spectrum, nonprofit board members have the power needed to call attention to problems and are fully expected to do so! By the very nature of their roles board members are tasked with the responsibility of helping keep the organization on track. They are supposed to watch out for possible risks and offer their advice on what the right direction should be for the organization. They can objectively help to answer key questions like, “Will this draw us away from our core mission?”, “How will the investment of time and talent on this project impact what we are already doing?”, and “Are we doing this because it makes our programs better, or because we can get funding for it?” When the board feels that a new program or direction is not advisable, they must speak up and make their voice known to leadership (and then leadership needs to genuinely listen!).
Think back to why you wanted to join the board initially. What was it about the organization that was important to you back then? Is that still an important priority for the organization? If not, mission creep may be occurring. And if the organization doesn’t align with why you joined the organization, it probably is not aligning with donors, staff, other board members, and the community either.
Advice for Donors
The last group that is crucial in responding to mission creep is donors. Donors weigh in on mission creep with their wallets. When donors see that an organization has shifted away from its core mission to other priorities, they shouldn’t just stop giving. They need to use their individual voices to articulate what they are seeing and how they are perceiving those changes, as well as how their giving has changed as a result. Once the Director of Giving has received this feedback, they can then convey it to the rest of the leadership team to help inform future strategy.
When you are evaluating a new opportunity, experienced leadership is of paramount importance to avoid falling into the trap of mission creep. We offer nonprofit consulting and board advisory services to give your organization access to skilled nonprofit leaders to help guide its strategic planning and decision-making. Contact us today to find out more!
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