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Four Signs a Nonprofit May Be Headed into a Perfect Storm of 'Mission Creep'

A ship follows a course to reach its destination much like nonprofits follow their mission. Throughout the journey at sea, a ship must adjust to unexpected circumstances to avoid becoming adrift. Without the adjustment, the destination is not only further away, but resources also wear thin. For a nonprofit, straying far from the mission —also known as “Mission Creep” — can result in missing the proverbial “boat” that they were founded to serve.

What is Mission Creep?

Mission Creep can be a gradual drifting away from the core of a nonprofit mission or a dramatic shift into uncharted waters. It is often not within a non-profit’s DNA to turn a blind eye to all unmet needs. Therefore, the shift can occur through the identification of issues beyond current capabilities, or as additional resources become available, or a change in leadership with a passion beyond the current mission.

What are the typical signals of Mission Creep?

The most typical alerts to possible Mission Creep include items that fly under the radar, and become dangerously institutionalized as they slowly deplete the organization’s focus, passion and ultimately sustainability.

  • Chasing the Money: Funding is, and will always remain a challenge for nonprofits. The allure of grants may fill the void but may be only loosely tied to your mission. A nonprofit with a core focus on finding a cure for a disease, may choose to expand their tool box to include advocacy because funding was available.
  • Mission by Committee: A mission built to include everyone’s perspective is often difficult to explain to funders as well as employees. It adds a level of complexity that taxes the nonprofit’s ability to communicate its true identity. “We do such amazing work, I can’t possibly tell you everything we do to provide food to the needy.”
  • Subtraction by Addition: While admirable, expanding services to meet root causes may dilute core programmatic efforts. A homeless shelter may see the need for job training to end the cycle for their residents. However, developing a program extension to serve that need may drain resources to manage your core cause.
  • Leadership Burnout: Passion plays a key role in a nonprofits’ efforts. As leadership and staff become more taxed and unfocused, the energy and the drive begins to fade. Facing unrealistic expectations may be a limiting factor in the nonprofit’s ability to meet their desired objectives.

How do you “batten down the hatches” to avoid Mission Creep?
Start by asking some key foundational questions:

  • Mission control: Is your mission clear and concise and focused on your organization’s strength? A review of your mission that asks your stakeholders for honest feedback that is supported by real data can help to inspire and provide that laser focus and guide decisions.
  • Expansion vs Dilution: Will the addition of another cause force tradeoffs within your current portfolio of products or services? A thorough evaluation of the reallocation of resources is essential to ensure that your core programming will not suffer. The potential damage to your reputation and blurring of your purpose could be detrimental to your clients and staff, as well as donors and funders. Finding a partner in that area of interest may be a better way to move forward.
  • Permission to say, “No Thank You”: Are you responding to a Request for Proposal (RFP) that may be outside your wheelhouse but is just too good to pass up? It is a tough decision, but one that requires an honest evaluation of scope and your abilities to deliver quality work in a new area.
  • Organizational Capacity: Does your organization have the capacity to take on the expansion? Even if the effort is within your scope, a detailed assessment of capacity to be sure you can take it on and be successful is important. Consider your bandwidth, internal talent, and sheer volume of current work.

Like a ship adrift, Mission Creep can lead to serious, unintended consequences for your nonprofit, perhaps even failure. Staying the course with the intent of fulfilling the organization’s mission requires a long-term commitment to not only these foundational recommendations, but also to core practices for nonprofit sustainability.

Please feel free to contact McKinley Carter at or (304) 230-2400 if you would like to learn more about core practices for nonprofit sustainability.

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