Is “Mission Creep” a Bad Thing?

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Nonprofits are created and chartered to pursue a specific mission. It’s how an organization earns its tax-exempt status and it’s the salient purpose that brings people together to do important work. When a nonprofit decides to edge out from the core of its mission and attempt new projects, it’s sometimes thought of negatively, as “mission creep.”


Sometimes an organization is presented with an opportunity that’s “too good to resist.” This often happens when a piece of money becomes available—maybe a grant opportunity, maybe a big surprise gift from a donor. The conversation sounds like “How can we say no? We could do such good stuff with that money. Let’s take it and then we’ll figure out the program.” Nonprofits that follow that siren song often find themselves doing work well outside the parameters of their charter.


It might not be creepy. Sometimes it’s a reflection of new strategic choices, new tactics based on changing circumstances, response to a situation that demands immediate action. All fine, as long as the new work is consistent with your established pattern of practice and serves to amplify, not distort, the original intent of the organization.


There are ways to do a self-check to be sure you’re not slipping and sliding and creeping. One basic way is to talk about your mission, not just point to it on the wall. Make it the subject of internal communications. Have an all-organization meeting to review and explore it.


Another way is to break down your mission into specific objectives and spell these out so they are clear, measurable and understood by all your key stakeholders. Then apply the same tests to the potential new initiative and ask yourselves whether it lines up with your existing objectives. If it does, you’re probably staying within the guard rails. If it doesn’t, it might represent a creep.


Ask yourselves: how will doing this “new thing” affect the welfare and satisfaction of your traditional and current clients or participants? If they welcome it and see it as integral to your value in the community, go for it. If they don’t, maybe you should pass.


It’s important to do this ongoing assessment so you are delivering on the commitments you’ve already made. Make new friends, but keep the old?


Thomas Boyd is Chief Editorial Consultant for The Grantsmanship Center
and an independent consultant to nonprofit organizations.

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