A mission-driven nonprofit takes a proactive stance with its cause and with all its stakeholders, including board, staff, funders, community leaders, other nonprofits. It is engaged in its mission and energetic about carrying it out.

Symptoms of a mission-challenged nonprofit take many forms. Sometimes the problem is that the organization lacks a clear or current mission or has a misguided mission that falls short in inspiring its employees and constituents to action and service.

Many nonprofit board members and staff are unable to explain their organization’s mission. For instance, when asked what his nonprofit’s mission was, the executive director and producer of a weekly faith-based television broadcast replied, “To grow our Nielsen ratings. ”That might be a reasonable goal, but it’s not a mission that employees, donors, and others will rally around longer term.

Nonprofits often mistake a strategy, tactic, or objective for a mission. In other cases the mission might be compelling, but it has become lost in the routine of the day-to-day, serving as a rationale for operations after the fact.

For example, a longstanding non-profit working to eliminate race and class barriers has a mission to organize and train communities and individuals to advocate for social and economic justice. But, in recent years the organization has become overly focused on its publishing operations, especially the production of two community-focused publications. The organization had begun to look more like a media company than a community service agency. Both the board and executive leadership had gotten caught up in strategizing about their publications instead of carrying out their larger mission.

Both board and staff had stopped inspiring themselves to take on increasingly greater challenges and to pursue the most valuable partnerships promoting outcomes that would be on mission. Though the organization was still providing services to the community, it wasn’t leading systemic change, and thus failing to have its desired impact.

Nonprofits can run off the mission rails in several ways. A quick examination of your mission statement or daily operations isn’t enough to understand whether you’re facing mission-related challenges, and the extent of their impact. Instead, it’s best to look more systematically for internal and external signs of mission issues. Here are some of the most common symptoms observed at mission-challenged nonprofits.


  • A disengaged board of directors. At mission-driven nonprofits, the board urges the organization to reinvent itself and reach ever higher. The board and executive leadership have ongoing dialogue about where the organization should go and the best routes to get there.The board of a mission-challenged nonprofit might meet only rarely, with meetings marked by low energy and the rubber-stamping of business as usual. Such boards look to the organization’s executives to provide direction,rather than offering these leaders guidance and oversight, in line with the board’s charter.
  • The absence of “good” anxiety. Mission-driven organizations generate excitement about taking on big new challenges. Leaders and employees should feel both confident and anxious about their capability to achieve the non-profit’s goals. If there’s no anxiety, the nonprofit might have a mission that’s too easily achieved, and thus, less likely to have impact. Anxiety-free organizations tend to take a business-as-usual approach that inhibits scope and impact.
  • A chorus of can’ts. “Can’t” is a common word at mission-challenged organizations. “We can’t expand our mission because . . . We can’t achieve that goal because . . .We can’t partner with that other nonprofit because . . .”A “we can’t” approach is a common strategy for avoiding the previously mentioned good anxiety. At best, “can’t” statements maintain the status quo and prohibit growth. More insidiously, “can’t” statements contribute to a slow, creeping deterioration of the organization’s culture, impact and overall effectiveness.Mission-driven nonprofits promote change. Transformation and risk-taking are part of their culture. They replace “we can’t” with “we can figure this out” and other affirmative statements.
  • Internal silos. Most organizations, including nonprofits, are breeding grounds for silos. These are departments or groups that become too rigidly focused on doing things their way and protecting their turf. They fail to consider what’s best for the broader organization.The result is a pervasive “not my job” mentality, along with poor communication among groups, both of which lead to poor overall performance. Silos breed the aforementioned “we can’t” mentality that brings productivity to a halt as members of the organization effectively say, “We can’t collaborate to achieve our mission.”


  • The phone isn’t ringing. It might seem obvious, but mission-challenged nonprofits tend not to be sought by those who need their services or want to develop partnerships and explore ways to collaborate. Is the organization invited to take part in important initiatives or bid for major projects?
    The media is more likely to tap a mission-driven nonprofit than others for its expertise in a given area. Mission-challenged organizations have lower visibility overall. Their calls often go unreturned, and they’re forced to submit proposals cold, rather than through established contacts who can help with the ins and outs of an often complex application process.

  • No work on the network. Mission-driven nonprofits network with other players in their ecosystem, including government organizations, associations and fellow nonprofits, sharing ideas and motivation. As the previous two points suggest, mission-challenged nonprofits tend to enjoy little interest from other parties, whether funders or those who need their services.
    They also fail to reach out to groups relevant to their mission – including those who could provide valuable feedback — thus ensuring that their network does little to advance their cause or growth. This is true not only on the organizational level but also on the individual level. Employees at mission-challenged nonprofits tend to stay in their offices instead of tapping networks of influential community leaders to arrange meetings and lunches with those who can help their cause. That failure to network leads to increased isolation of the organization.
  • The money isn’t coming. Mission-challenged nonprofits don’t receive the funding needed or that their managers believe the organizations deserve to get. The funding community has limited resources, and these tend to go to organizations about which they can get excited.
    Mission-driven nonprofits keep their funding base engaged in issues of mutual interest and updated on new developments. They also solicit input from funders on the organizational direction and programs, taking any feedback to heart. They are open to improvement and actively seek it out, rather than holding their breaths and sidestepping conversations that can lead to change.
  • Misguided competition. Competition among nonprofits occupying the sam space is natural and even healthy, often stimulating creativity and higher performance. But mission-challenged nonprofits tend to use the wrong criteria to measure themselves against peer organizations.
    For example, rather than exploring the full range of options to achieve its mission, a nonprofit might aim only to host a more lavish fundraiser than a competitor. Similarly, it might overlook possible partnerships. Mission-driven organizations learn from competitors and partner with them if it serves the greater good.
    There are many other symptoms, of course, but these are among the most common. Moreover, nonprofits, even some with household names, tend to be blind to most or all of these symptoms, allowing the problems to build on one another. Boards and leaders don’t challenge the organization to be more, and they ignore signs that the players who should see them as valuable don’t. Many mission-challenged nonprofits have never asked community leaders for feedback and rarely consider partnerships. Not surprisingly, organizations like these tend to become isolated, failing to understand and interact with the power base in their ecosystem. The situation becomes unsustainable, leading to failure, or to a nonprofit limping along with little purpose or impact. The good news is that being truly objective about your organization and identifying symptoms like the ones above is often the first step to moving from mission-challenged to mission-driven.