7 Ways Nonprofits Can Avoid Mission Creep

Mission Statements That Stay Put

Excellent nonprofit leaders say no as often as they say yes.

Frances Hesselbein, the iconic leader of the Girl Scouts during its fastest growth period, was passionate about staying on course. And it paid off. Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, once asked Hesselbein how she did it.

Hesselbein, a fan of the stop-doing list and the not-to-do list, replied:

"You're looking at the mission, and you have only one question. If we do this, will it further the mission? If the answer is no or maybe, you find the loveliest way to say thank you very much, but at this time we have to focus on x,y,z, but we're grateful that you brought it to us."

"No" might be a nonprofit's best tool to avoid mission creep, loss of focus and program bloat. Losing your laser focus on your organization's original purpose puts you one step closer to loss of support and possibly a dead end.

In today's fast-moving world, it's not unusual to find that the need your organization started serving has morphed into something entirely different.  At that point, it's time to modify direction and mission.

However, be alert for that change and deliberately switch course, including officially changing your mission statement and letting all interested parties (especially donors) know what you've decided to do and how you'll do it.  Watch out for drift where you only discover that you've changed course after the fact or mid-stream.

Until that decisive day comes, though, it's best to stay the course and not go running after every shiny object or be seduced by a donor who wants your organization to fulfill his or her personal altruistic dream.

Kim Jonker and William F. Meehan III, nonprofit experts, wrote a classic article on mission creep for the Stanford Social Innovation Review. That was some years ago, but their insights still ring true today.  In that article, they identified the seven features of mission statements that will stay put for the long haul.  Use these points to evaluate your mission and activities frequently.

They Are Focused

ony Cordoza/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The best mission statements are not grandiose, but instead narrowly focused. They are more like laser beams than spotlights.

"Feeding all the hungry people in the world" is laudable but likely out of reach for an organization with finite resources. The more focused the mission, the better the results.

Better yet is the mission statement that sticks to a particular location as well as one aim. A good example is this one from The Food Bank of New York City:

"As one of the country's largest food banks, our mission is to end hunger in New York City by organizing food, information and support for community survival and dignity."

They Solve Unmet Public Needs

A volunteer helping children decide on an animal to adopt.
Christopher Futcher/E+/Getty Images

Nonprofits receive special tax status because they address problems that the government and business can't or won't deal with. Their mission statements must be about these public needs, such as this one from the Humane Society of the United States:

"To create a humane and sustainable world for all animals, including people, through education, advocacy, and the promotion of respect and compassion."

They Leverage Unique Skills

Teach for America's mission is to recruit young college graduates to address educational inequality.
Hero Images/Getty Images

Passion and high aspirations are not enough for real impact. A nonprofit should be able to accomplish very specific things that others can't.  

An example is Teach for America, which recruits young people, who are likely to be future leaders, to tackle educational inequality. The mission is specific as to the who and what: 

"Our mission is to enlist, develop, and mobilize as many as possible of our nation's most promising future leaders to grow and strengthen the movement for educational equity and excellence."

They Guide Decision Making

Homepage of St. Jude Children's Reseearch Hospital
Screenshot by JFritz

Every nonprofit must make critical decisions and trade-offs - what initiatives to proceed with and which to abandon.

Correctly focused organizations say "no" to funding opportunities or programs that do not align with their mission, but they say "yes" to opportunities that will take their mission to the next level.

It's not always easy to figure out which opportunities will take a nonprofit backward or forward. It's even tougher to say no to the bad choices. Nevertheless, successful nonprofits learn to make the hard decisions.

St. Jude Children's Research Hospital puts its founder's original vision at the center of its mission statement, providing a clear guideline for any future activities.

"The mission of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is to advance cures, and means of prevention, for pediatric catastrophic diseases through research and treatment. Consistent with the vision of our founder Danny Thomas, no child is denied treatment based on race, religion or a family's ability to pay."

They Energize and Inspire Stakeholders

Screenshot of UNICEF's webpage showing a young girl and the words "for every child, a fair chance."
Screeshot by JFritz

A nonprofit has multiple stakeholders, often with conflicting interests and ideas. These can include board members, staff, customers, government agencies and the public.

A great mission reflects all those interests but balances them, sometimes favoring some over others. But, as a result, the mission inspires everyone.

For sheer inspiration, UNICEF's mission statement stands out:

"Doing whatever it takes to save a child.

"Working in over 150 countries, UNICEF is a global humanitarian relief organization providing children with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF supports UNICEF's humanitarian relief work through fundraising, advocacy and education in the United States.

"Despite extraordinary progress, 22,000 children still die each day from preventable causes. Our mission is to do whatever it takes to make that number zero by giving children the essentials for a safe and healthy childhood."

They Anticipate Change

March of Dimes website showing premature baby clutching an adult's finger.
Screenshot by JFritz

By anticipating change, these mission statements are timeless.

To accommodate change, a nonprofit should re-explain its mission to its stakeholders every three to five years. Reframing can regain their supporters' understanding and commitment.

But that does not mean organizations need to change their missions. That should only be done in truly exceptional cases.

One of those cases was the March of Dimes. It initially battled polio After the historic vaccine abolished polio, the organization pivoted to congenital disabilities. Today, the March of Dimes continues as a robust, resilient charity. Here's its mission.

"To improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects, premature birth, and infant mortality. We carry out this mission through research, community services, education and advocacy to save babies' lives. March of Dimes researchers, volunteers, educators, outreach workers and advocates work together to give all babies a fighting chance against the threats to their health: prematurity, birth defects, low birthweight."

They Stick in the Memory

Homeboy Industries showcases a man working in their bakery.
Screenshot by JFritz

Stakeholders, especially external ones such as donors, rely on your nonprofit's mission statement to guide their actions.

Make it memorable. It should be short, concrete, and as easy to see as a favorite photo. 

Homeboy Industries does it right with this mission:

"Jobs not Jails: Homeboy Industries assists at-risk and formerly ​gang-involved youth to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training and education."