Finding and defining mission


What are three ways a nonprofit can define and articulate its strategic mission?


* Recognize shortcomings.

The chase for dollars in the increasingly competitive philanthropic arena often encourages aggressive fundraising at the expense of the nonprofit’s knowledge of itself.

But this knowledge is vital, and must include knowledge of the organization’s weak as well as strong points.

Nonprofits must recognize that the process of identifying their shortcomings will lead to greater strength.

Often these shortcomings — whether they exist internally within systems or personnel, or externally in terms of unmet need — are seen as a cause for embarrassment among the leadership and as proof of organizational failure.

In fact, they are often opportunities to articulate mission in a way that invites partnerships to work collaboratively to strengthen mission fulfillment.

* Invite compromise.

There will always be at least a certain level of struggle and disagreement among leaders as to how best to articulate and achieve mission.

Mission statements or visioning documents are always the result of cooperative effort and compromise.

It is important to keep in mind that an organization’s mission may be stated in simple language but understood in complex terms by each individual involved in the organization.

Too often, disagreement over language and interpretation leads to dysfunction.

Instead, leaders should understand that it is ok for individuals to have varying interpretations of their organization’s mission. In fact, this can be a strength of the organization, by providing individuals the opportunity for greater dedication and commitment.

* Demonstrate dedicated leadership.

So widespread is the focus on money as an end in itself that board members looking for funding often say their primary objective is to “achieve our fundraising goal.”

When asked to forget about the money and state what they really want to accomplish, they fall silent and look to each other for someone to answer.

In order to avoid this silence, leadership must demonstrate an impassioned commitment to their organization’s mission and ownership of mission fulfillment.

There is no better articulation of mission than a demonstration of support from the leadership. But nonprofit leadership has a tendency to see solutions to the challenges of mission fulfillment as always “out there” rather than “in here.”

Whether this manifests as the quest for other people’s money, other organizations’ volunteers, or relationships previously out of reach, this tendency removes the focus from where it should be, which is on the organization’s leadership itself.

— Compiled by Laura Newman

Eric Staley is founder and president of Missionmapping, an organization based in Columbia, Mo., that counsels and facilitates organizational leadership on fundraising, governance and mission alignment to help allow nonprofits run effectively.

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