Mission is the currency of the non-profit organization. The revenues of a non-profit should be used solely for the purpose of achieving mission. However, many non-profits are surprisingly unclear about their mission. Don’t get me wrong, they know what business they are in; they can differentiate between a mission focused on hunger and one focused on athletics. It’s the specificity that is often lacking.
Why is mission so important? It is the compelling statement about what you do that makes people want to engage with your organization; as volunteers, members and donors. If you tell people that you do one thing, but actually do another; or if you are vague about your mission, you will not attract the right people. You may miss people who would choose to join you, or have people join you and become angry that you have misled them. Your agency may get a reputation for being evasive, hypocritical or incompetent.
Readers may question how it is possible for organizations to not know what they do. Some agencies’ mandates are very broad and open to interpretation, however, even agencies with a narrower scope or activity, may be challenged. For example, consider a minor sports association. It might have several purposes, and some could be conflicting. Is the purpose to bring as many people as possible into the sport? To be a training ground for more elite athletes in the sport? To teach good sportsmanship? To create community?
Or consider the goals of a foodbank. Should it provide healthy food? Teach life skills? Advocate for a living wage? Provide employment counselling? Readers can probably think of many other things a foodbank might do to assist people to achieve food security, however, each of these activities takes resources. If leadership is not in agreement about the scope of their services, they may do the wrong things, or do too many things poorly.
Typically, organizations have substandard or non-existent mission statements for the following reasons:
- Leadership does not see the value in spending time developing a mission statement;
- There is a lack of consensus and the exercise is abandoned in frustration;
- The mission statement incorporates every idea that is presented, resulting in it being lengthy and imprecise;
- There is too much focus on language and too little on purpose (i.e. it sounds good but is meaningless);
- The process allows the person with the loudest voice to dictate the result.
A good test of the quality of the mission statement is to ask non-involved people (your friends and family) what the mission statement tells them about an organization. If they are unable to paraphrase what you do (for example they read the statement back to you word for word), or if several people provide feedback that is clearly divergent from what the organization does, the mission statement does not work.
Many boards appear oblivious to internal differences of opinion about mission. Sometimes, each is so convinced of purpose that they are not even aware of the incongruence; sometimes, they are concerned about retaining the contrary director and choose to ignore the difference, hoping that the outlier will eventually conform; sometimes the group simply accepts the expanded mission to keep everyone happy. Regardless of the reason, it is unhealthy to have directors working toward different purposes.
Even when the leadership agrees about the scope of work, creating a mission statement can be challenging. The process is often the problem. For example, putting many people in a room to craft the statement can be exhausting. People become focused on a few specific words, sometimes everyone chooses sides. It may be that the person with the most staying power ‘wins’. Often, the focus becomes on the eloquence of the language rather than the substance.
One way to avoid the traditional chaos involved in creating a mission statement is to be sure there is consensus on the role, before trying to craft the statement. It may be easier to identify differences in opinion by gathering written statements about what the organization does and allowing all members to review these statements. The board should then engage in a frank discussion about what can realistically be accomplished. Sometimes it’s possible to agree that an object is important, however not yet achievable for the organization. Sometimes it will be necessary to reject an outlying purpose and may result in the loss of a director. However, once the organization agrees on what it does, it becomes easier to craft a statement that will be clear, concise and motivational.
Charitable organizations are required to file their “charitable purpose” with Canada Revenue Agency. Charitable organizations that act outside of their charitable purposes risk losing their charitable status. If a charity is contemplating a significant shift in direction, it should consult with the charities directorate prior to doing so. For more information please visit Government of Canada: Changing a Charity’s Purpose.
Identifying an agency’s mission may be the most important role the Board of Directors plays. It is unfortunate how often this is done poorly or not done at all. Agencies can undertake this work on their own, they can recruit a competent volunteer to lead the process or they can hire an external consultant. Whatever methodology is used, the mission statement should be continually tested by asking the questions:
- Is this what we truly do?
- Does this tell our stakeholders what we do?
- Do we evaluate every decision based on this statement?
In the words of Yogi Berra: “If you don’t know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else.”
Sandra Dunham is the sole-proprietor of Streamline New Perspective Solutions
Streamline New Perspective Solutions offers management consulting services for non-profit organizations. Please visit www.streamlinenps.ca