Home NonprofitNonprofit Management Common Nonprofit Mistakes (And Simple Solutions) Part 10: Why I Am Sticking To My Roots

Common Nonprofit Mistakes (And Simple Solutions) Part 10: Why I Am Sticking To My Roots

by Tim Goetz

Miss the beginning of the series? Go to Common Nonprofit Mistakes (And Simple Solutions) Part 1: I Could Do It All, But I Shouldn’t.

Creative, innovative, and flexible. Those are valuable traits for any leader, right? Absolutely. But can you be too responsive to opportunities?

I rely on these skills daily to keep Aplos relevant and receptive to the needs of nonprofits. Nonprofit leaders need the same abilities to guide their nonprofits through the ebb and flow of funding, changing times, and evolving needs.

But you can have too much of a good thing. The wrong opportunity can easily lead you into the common mistake of mission drift. Without careful consideration and a rock-solid mission statement, you may look around one day and realize your nonprofit is no longer achieving the mission you originally set out to accomplish.

Let’s follow Molly as she finds herself caught up in mission drift that puts her nonprofit in jeopardy.

Nonprofit Missions

Molly here. My first year as director of my nonprofit felt like a teeter-totter between brilliant success and the brink of extinction, but we survived. I wasn’t perfect, but I was always ready to tackle a challenge head on and was looking for fresh, new ideas. Unfortunately, some of these new ideas didn’t end up the way I expected.

We had decided to start offering vaccinations to the public on weekends to generate a little extra income. Every Saturday evening, from five to nine, folks would line up to have their furry friends vaccinated for an unbeatable price.

Our vaccination program was running smoothly and bringing in steady income most weekends, so I wondered how else we could use our existing resources to generate more income for the shelter. Doggy day camp? Why not! We offered it at our facility once a week to help owners train their recently adopted pets.

On a roll, I dove straight into the next suggestion that we could utilize unused space to operate a kennel and care for dogs while owners were on vacation.

The ideas seemed helpful for our adoptive owners, but over time I began to notice a few things that made me worry. My time was being stretched thin with the logistics of all of these programs. And my volunteers were getting overwhelmed by the special requests for the dogs we were kenneling: special meals, petting every 30 minutes, even requests that the dog watch its favorite TV show! Really, people?

I knew we had made a mistake when I had to turn away a few homeless dogs because we were maxed out using space for kennels.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this. My board members noticed as well. In our monthly reports, there was an increase in income, but the number of dogs we had sheltered and found homes for had slowly declined.

Nonprofit Signs of Failing

Sure, we could probably make it as a dog training and kennel business, but that wasn’t what we were here for. The entire reason our organization existed was to save animals and find homes for them, and these new programs were standing in the way of that.

I sat down with my board members to decide whether or not these programs supported the core mission. Sure enough, the kennel and doggy day camp got the axe. They were profitable, but they didn’t support our purpose, which was to find homes for abandoned animals. I was disappointed that I let my organization’s mission drift, but I’m glad we realized our problem and were able to reel it back in.

My board and I felt confident that we could stay on track, and we had a renewed spirit of conviction about what we were working to accomplish. I loved the work we were doing and our mission would be my north star to guide me for the future.

Best Practices for Nonprofits

I founded Aplos Software because the small churches and nonprofits I worked with couldn’t find the simple, affordable nonprofit software they needed. Our mission was to build it for them.

I’ll admit that I struggle with mission drift from time to time. I am privileged to work with a great team that can build any kind of software. Every few weeks I see an interesting business opportunity, but if it doesn’t accommodate our core mission of building software that simplifies managing a nonprofit, I let it go.

That is where Molly ran into trouble. As she looked for new funding, she built programs that tapped her manpower and resources, and stood in the way of their mission. Each program took the shelter one step further away from what they were really there to accomplish.

Are You Drifting?

What are signs that you have gone too big, too wide, or too far off course? Your resources may be spread too thin if you created too many programs. It can also become more difficult to determine where to focus your efforts because you have too many objectives you are trying to meet.

If you aren’t sure where you are heading, your supporters will feel that as well. A really good sign that you are experiencing mission drift is if your employees and supporters are unable to easily articulate what the nonprofit does.

Nonprofit Mission Drift

How Can You Avoid It?

Mission drift most frequently occurs when nonprofits look for new funding. For example, you rework your program to qualify for a grant. It may even be a major donor who leans on you to operate a certain way or shift more resources to a specific area.

Sometimes money comes with strings attached, so to avoid mission drift, you need to be prepared to evaluate those requests and have a clear understanding of your mission.

Achieving Your Nonprofit's Mission

Create A Mantra, Not A Mission Statement

The biggest defense against mission drift is your mission statement. Unfortunately, a lot of nonprofits draft broad, vague statements. It is tough to answer yes or no when they ask, “Does this opportunity fit my mission?”

In his book, Art of the Start, former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki recommends that organizations write a mantra, not a mission. It should be a clear, concise, and memorable phrase.

To create a mantra, think about these questions:

  • Who do we serve?
  • What do we do?
  • Why does it matter?

A mantra inspires and rallies your supporters around what you are working toward. Keep it to two or three words if you can so it is easy to understand and remember.

Not sure what to make as your mantra? Here are some examples of short, memorable mantras from companies you may have heard of:

  • The Humane Society: Celebrating Animals. Confronting Cruelty.
  • Google: Organizing the world’s information
  • TED: Spreading Ideas

Your mantra defines your organization, so no matter what roads you take, you can always make it back. Even if you use a longer mission statement of one or two sentences, keep it short, specific, and inspiring.

Reinforce Your Mantra With Your Team Members

Your mantra is more than a motto or tagline. It is transformational and speaks to your organization’s fundamental purpose. It is your rallying point.

Employees and Mission Statements

Paint your mantra on your wall. Start every meeting with it. Include it in every communication. If you picked the right mantra, every employee, volunteer, and donor will feel inspired by having a strong vision about the organization they are supporting.

Measure Your Mission

In Part 9 of this series, we worked through the importance of measuring your nonprofit’s impact. If you have identified specifically how you plan to achieve your mission and tied it to measurements of success, you have a highly effective tool to help detect when you are drifting in your mission.

As you start a new program, identify how it will achieve your purpose and what metrics you will track to prove it. Then review those metrics regularly to make sure you are achieving your mission. It is important to review the outcomes of established programs as well to identify areas for improvement. That will give you an opportunity to evaluate a program and determine if it has lost effectiveness because it drifted away from its original purpose.

Have you experienced mission drift? Does your nonprofit have a mantra that keeps you focused? Share in the comments section below.

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