How to Recognize and Deal With Mission Drift

Almost every organization has a tendency now and then to drift away from its mission and start down a path of following the money. Once an organization enters the mature stage of its development (email for our article on the life cycles of nonprofit organizations) the executive director’s appetite for money increases because there are a lot of mouths to feed, and the non-profit requires more people and financial resources to survive. At this stage, some organizations reverse the means and ends and focus more on maintenance of the organization rather than fulfilling the mission. This is when mission drift is likely to happen.

Here are some of the key signs that your organization is suffering from mission drift:

  1. You look for the dollars first and build programs around the dollars. This is usually the early sign of mission drift — when the driving force is dollars rather than designing programs that are targeted directly to the constituency.
  2. Not clear what your mission is. When you ask board members what the organization’s mission is and everyone has a different answer, you know something is not right.
  3. Chasing publicity and media. The organization should be focused on its community impact NOT on its media image.
  4. Large turnover of staff/board members. This churn of staff and board frequently takes place when a non-profit loses site of its values and mission.
  5. You find yourself in a crisis mode chasing dollars like a dog chasing its bone. This is a clear sign of mission drift.
  6. Key staff and leaders begin to question why the non-profit is in business at all. They ask themselves if they have already accomplished the mission, and wonder if it might be time to re-evaluate the purpose of the organization.
  7. You constantly question whether or not you are violating your ethical standards because you find yourself partnering with companies that have a clear conflict of interest (such as medical-related non-profits taking large amounts of pharmaceutical dollars or youth groups taking money from alcohol companies).
  8. Realizing you are “coasting” and not on the cutting edge of creativity and effectiveness. When some groups reach maturity, they lose their energy and passion and feel that the work is just a job rather than a way to change the world.
  9. A core group of board members or volunteers push the organization in a certain direction that is not consistent with the mission. This sometimes happens when you have a board that is removed from the mission and has a different culture than the core staff.
  10. The executive director is trying to justify stagnant and decreasing numbers. Make sure the numbers on reports to funding sources and on the IRS 990 jive with the reality of your organization’s situation.

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