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On mission drift

Fraying shoestring budgets seem to be the norm for non-profits

Many nonprofits, particularly those led by women seem to run on fraying shoestring budgets. No business would run this way. Make no mistake, nonprofits are businesses and must deliver social impact and lead to social change. They cannot deliver on the promises they implicitly make to their constituents if they are not fully resourced. However, resources are often a critical issue. They are scarce, particularly when it comes to money or capital.

This brings me to mission drift. It is no surprise that non-profits are tempted to stray from their mission and expertise when foundations change their focus, which they do, every few years. For instance, a few years ago a number of foundations and donors got behind sex trafficking as the issue of the day. At the same time there was a huge reduction in financial support for addressing domestic violence. There was no evidence that domestic violence had substantially decreased, nor that sex trafficking had suddenly increased. Many domestic violence service providers began going after these funds, with the idea that this was “issue adjacent” and could add to the providers’ coffers. However, serving young victims of trafficking is not the same as serving survivors of domestic violence – the services needed are different, sheltering them is different, security needs are different. It requires a different set of skills. It’s a different fit for the organization.

When non-profits launch new programs, because funds are available to launch them, they are often hard to sustain. This is a case of the tail wagging the dog and doomed for failure. More often than not, these programs fail because of limited expertise, there are never enough resources to fully plan and execute the strategy. In the case of the example mentioned earlier, domestic violence programs tried to expand to serving victims of trafficking with little success, because they didn’t fundamentally build the capacity to serve them, in part due to the lack of adequate resource.

Mission drift causes –

  • A drag on resources

  • Diversion of resources

  • There is a very steep learning curve to execute on a program or strategy that is not aligned with the mission

A better option is to have a solid strategic plan, even if it is only for three years. This is also the time to review/revise the mission.

There is a time to be opportunistic. A time for innovation. A better option is to have an innovative idea/strategy/program and raise the funds for them. This can be ‘disruptive’, change the way services are delivered. Once again, the goal here is to seek funds for an idea rather that developing a program merely because the funds are available.

Another option is to consider efficiency and scale. Often, these don’t go hand-in-hand with non-profits. However, it is critically important for their sustainability.

A seasoned non-profit leader told me when I was just starting out, “do good work that makes a difference and the money will come”. Wise words for non-profits to live by.

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