Many years back I worked with a team to create a nonprofit mission statement for the first time. It was one of the most excruciating experiences of my professional life. The problems included members not fully grasping the purpose of a mission, others had different perspectives of what the nonprofit should do, where it should be focused and how it should conduct its activities.
With the mission in action I also found lessons that should have been better understood during the mission creation meetings, lessons that I later found were not uncommon among small nonprofits.
If you are developing your mission statement or in the process of adapting a mission to your maturing organization, remember the aftermath of these often-overlooked problems.
Expertise is a common problem for small nonprofits. You want to do good, you have volunteers, and a plan to deliver a charitable service. Once you begin delivering that service you start to wonder whether you are as effective as some of the larger nonprofits doing similar work.
What your organization should be doing is applying its expertise. Expertise can be specific skills, knowledge, a geographic area, or sometimes even a strong network, although your mission probably wouldn’t mention that network unless it’s what you specifically do. Your mission doesn’t have to mention your expertise, but it should complement the expertise you have. In other words, your mission should help your supporters know that you have expertise.
A great example of this is the mission of The Humane Society of the United States: "Celebrating Animals, Confronting Cruelty." In this short and simple mission, changing “animals” to “people” would open a lot of questions about its expertise. Is it bullying, domestic violence, bad working conditions? But the organization can complement its expertise through a concise statement because of the common public understanding of animal cruelty. Even if it wasn’t a well-known organization, the same interpretation by the public is likely.
In short, make sure your mission is specific enough to help the public understand that you have a particular aim and ensure that aim compliments your expertise.
When you created your first mission you may have noticed some of your new board members were reluctant to support certain language. I’ve seen scenarios play out where the language is almost agreed upon by some active members but received push-back from less active members. As your organization forged ahead with a compromised mission you soon found out low-commitment members were pushing against a mission that created more work for them.
A new organization brings its board together with varying levels of enthusiasm. For new organizations that need the board to play an active role in its growth, you quickly regret those recruitment choices. Be wary of less active members trying to water down the mission unnecessarily. Most of the time replacing a less enthusiastic board member is easier than agreeing on a mission statement.
A while back I researched a failed nonprofit to figure out why it fell off course. Its board was highly experienced, its leadership grew the organization substantially, it was flush with donations (at least for a while), and its name closely matched its mission. It was highly successful in delivering services for a couple of decades, but eventually those services went far beyond its mission.
Successful fundraising veered its activities towards the whims of its donors. The board of directors guided it well in the early years, but as the activities began to chase proven donors the board’s expertise failed to intervene, possibly individually feeling insecure about their knowledge of the new direction, collectively delivering incompetence. In the end, it had to be merged with another well-established organization performing similar work, removing most of the board members.
Until you begin searching for funding you will likely not understand the temptation to suit your activities to easier funding that many nonprofit managers experience. In the above situation it was semi-organized faith-based donors, but remember that groups trying to do great things in the world aren’t galvanized on your mission; their mission is usually far more general.
Before you change your activities beyond the mission, work with the board to make sure they are well-equipped to oversee new activities and consider a mission change appropriately.
Missed Funding Connections
A client of mine had established its mission and been successfully working off limited public support for a couple of years. When the time came to expand its capacity they searched for foundations to support their efforts. Then they realized that between their service area, the type of work they conducted and the beneficiaries they supported, there wasn’t much funding available. Since then they have been able to generate grants from just a couple of foundations.
Foundations have a mission too, and your work must fit within the scope of their mission before you can get a grant proposal approved. Before you create a mission, figure out if there are foundations that fit your goals and service areas (more on that below). Sometimes a simple fix lies in how you present yourself, where you see the connection between your mission and that of the foundation but have a hard time putting it into words.
For some organizations you may consider how your capacity growth will be affected by grant funding limitations. The nonprofit community would consider it profanity to suggest changing your mission or activities for funding (remember mission hijacking). But take some time to look at how foundations are trying to address similar problems. If you see common solutions between organizations it may be a learning opportunity for your organization. Many nonprofits adapt to their situation as they learn, and when they do, a mission that complements the current expertise is likely in order, which can often get them closer to a foundation's understanding.
Being geographically stranded is not very different from foundations failing to see the connection, but it’s an important difference. In these circumstances your mission limits you to a certain geographical location that foundations don’t fund as often. This scenario is not as common since many foundations usually have regional scope, rather than country limitations (or state limitations for U.S.-focused nonprofits). However, you may work in an area that is just not as commonly funded.
In this case foundations may offer only limited support, but there may be an alternative in contracting. Research the larger nonprofits with similar missions near your service area. There may be opportunities for them to outsource their work when your organization has more specific expertise. This is a situation where knowing the service area and being locally networked may provide added value to a smaller organization and its beneficiaries. Keep in mind that not all their funding may be outsourced depending on where it came from, but many projects can be outsourced.