7 Ways Nonprofits Can Avoid Mission Creep

Mission Statements That Stay Put

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

"No" might be a nonprofit's best tool to avoid mission creep, loss of focus, and program bloat. Losing that laser focus on your charity'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 then deliberately switch course, including officially changing your "purpose" with the IRS and letting all interested parties (especially donors) know what you've decided to do and how you'll do it. 

Until that decisive day comes, though, it's best to stay the course and not run after every shiny object or be seduced by a donor who wants your organization to fulfill his or her philanthropic dream to the detriment of your primary mission.

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, the authors identified the seven features of mission statements that will stay put for the long haul. The following is a summary of those features. Use them to evaluate your mission and activities frequently.

Missions Are Focused

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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:

"To end hunger by organizing food, information and support for community survival, empowerment, and dignity. Food Bank For New York City has been working to end food poverty in our five boroughs for over 35 years. As the city’s largest hunger-relief organization, we employ a multifaceted approach centered on helping low-income New Yorkers overcome their circumstances and achieve greater independence."

Missions Solve Unmet Public Needs

A volunteer helping children decide on an animal to adopt.
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Charitable nonprofits receive their special tax status (501c3) because they address social purposes. Their mission statements must be about these specific public needs, such as this one from the Humane Society of the United States:

"We fight the big fights to end suffering for all animals.
Together with millions of supporters, we take on puppy mills, factory farms, the fur trade, trophy hunting, animal cosmetics testing and other cruel industries. We rescue and care for thousands of animals every year through our Animal Rescue Team’s work and other hands-on animal care services. We fight all forms of animal cruelty to achieve the vision behind our name: A humane society. "

Missions Leverage Unique Skills

Teach for America's mission is to recruit young college graduates to address educational inequality.
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Passion and high aspirations are not enough for real impact. A charitable nonprofit should be able to accomplish very specific things that would be difficult for individuals to address. The mission statement should include specific activities that achieve the organization's charitable purpose.

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

"Teach For America finds, develops, and supports a diverse network of leaders, working together to end educational inequity. Our alumni, corps members, and staff work in schools and in every sector and field that helps shape educational opportunity in America."

Missions Guide Decision Making

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

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

Super focused organizations say "no" to funding opportunities or programs that do not align with their missions, but they say "yes" to opportunities that will take their missions 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 possibilities. Nevertheless, successful nonprofits learn to make 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."

Missions 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 stakeholders include board members, staff, customers, donors, 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.

UNICEF's mission is complex but aspirational and inspirational. Here is just one snippet from its "What We Do" page:

"UNICEF works in over 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, to defend their rights, and to help them fulfill their potential, from early childhood through adolescence. And we never give up."

Missions Anticipate Change

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

By anticipating change, mission statements become timeless.

To accommodate change, a charity should re-explain its mission to its stakeholders every three to five years. Reframing can regain 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 nearly abolished polio, the organization pivoted to congenital disabilities. Since "disabilities" can expand, the organization may never have to change their mission again. Today, the March of Dimes continues as a robust, resilient charity. Here's its purpose.

"Prematurity is the #1 killer of babies in the United States. We are working to change that and help more moms have full-term pregnancies and healthy babies. From polio to prematurity the March of Dimes has focused on researching the problems that threaten our children and finding ways to prevent them."

Mission Statements 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 visualize as a favorite photo. 

Homeboy Industries does everything right with this mission statement:

"Homeboy Industries provides hope, training, and support to formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women allowing them to redirect their lives and become contributing members of our community."