Avoid Mission Creep by Saying No
Quick test: When’s the last time you said no to a funder offering you money? For many nonprofits, the answer is, ‘Never! We are grateful for every bit of support we can get!’ But according to Michael Mortell, director of the Alliance for Children and Families’ Strategy Counts initiative, it’s time for nonprofit organizations to become choosier—and thereby more strategic—about when to say ‘yes.’ “It’s just not in [a nonprofit’s] DNA to say no; so they are often collecting new programs and offerings,” he explains. “While that can be a strength, it is also important to be reflective on what is needed.”
It’s a difficult conversation but a necessary one. Mortell says that to be a strategic organization, you need to be in the position to decide if new or existing programs truly serve the needs of your community. And this, says Mortell, is what nonprofits need to be in order to continue their success. Unchecked, even the most well-intentioned nonprofits can fall victim to mission creep—where organizations, driven by funding opportunities, start providing services not in line with their vision and well outside of their core competencies. One of your goals: avoid mission creep.
A Simple Strategy: Say ‘No’
“Some of the most strategic organizations don’t take whatever comes along just because a funder offers it. They consider how it fits with their core mission and vision,” Mortell explains.
Consider the following questions when a new program is offered:
- Are you putting other things on hold when you say ‘yes’ to the new program?
- Is the new program fully funded or does it require additional fundraising in order to be effective?
- Does this new program meaningfully increase your impact?
He offers a proactive approach. “Seek to partner with funders, and especially engage the intended beneficiaries, to co-create programs. This helps us live up to our advocacy role.”
Technology is one of the reasons that strategy is more important that ever. “With the increased pace of change, the landscape in which nonprofits operate is shifting. Funding models, standards of care, evidence-based practices, regulations and governmental support are all changing,” explains Mortell. “Technology changes what’s possible in terms of the depth and breadth of what we can know, how immediately we can access information, and the possibility for predictive analysis and modeling,” he says.
We have moved from a system where it was enough to look at the activity and outputs on a surface level. Now, we need to look under those numbers and examine the impact those programs have on the individuals and communities. “Generally speaking, nonprofits grew over a number of decades, but that growth was less internally driven,” says Mortell. “It was fueled by programming designed at the state and federal level. In the current decade, nonprofits are becoming better positioned to make decisions about their programs and what makes sense for their community.”
Moving from reactive to strategic
“Organizations benefit from evaluating their program portfolio making some decisions,” says Mortell.
If the answer to ‘why are we doing this?’ is ‘we’ve done it this way for so many years, so we should keep doing it,’ it is clearly time to rev up the strategic rigor. “It’s a hard thing to say no and let go,” Mortell asserts. “But an organization that is grounded in strategy, engaged with the community and is guided by a vision is going to be proactive in having conversations like this.”
Michael Mortell is director of the Alliance for Children and Families Strategy Counts initiative where he helps nonprofits operate through a strategic lens while not letting go of their vision. Find out more about the Alliance for Children and Families commitments of high-impact organizations.