The organization was at a loss. For over a century the Chicago-area non-profit had worked to combat racism and poverty, using a platform of publishing and community organizing. But like leaders of so many organizations, the non-profit’s executives felt they were now stuck in auto-pilot, going through the motions to produce their two primary publications and organize a handful of community events. They faced a common problem: their mission had become an afterthought, with little attention paid to the bigger picture of their aspirations and goals. That problem was manifest in multiple ways, from the non-profit’s board’s poor engagement with executive leadership and staff to the fact that the organization sought no feedback from key community leaders and funders—not surprisingly, the non- profit had a steadily declining profile with both groups.

The organization, which eventually became our client, is far from alone; many others are feeling the same way: no longer energized about what they do or how they do it. Literally the moment our consultants walk into an organization’s offices, we can tell if it’s suffering from a poorly developed or under-executed mission: everyone from the head executive to the front-desk staff lacks energy and enthusiasm, the phone rarely rings, and there’s little communication among groups or with the external community. We see this routinely among our clients and the broader non-profit community. To be sure, part of the issue is the current economic climate. Competition has risen while the number of donors, amount of donations and funding resources has declined. But many non-profits are compounding the effects of the more challenging financial climate with departures from their missions—or blaming the economy for all the problems they face, rather than taking the steps to understand and address the factors they can control. They trap themselves in a cycle fueled by self-fulfilling prophecy: their fear and cynicism paralyze the organization, which only makes poor outcomes more likely. And so it continues for the mission-challenged organization.

In contrast, people at what I call “mission-driven” organizations have done everything they can to craft and carry out compelling, inspiring missions that are evident in everything they do—fundraising, operations, marketing, and other areas. At mission-driven organizations, people arrive at work excited to take on new challenges. Consider for example Chicago-based Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights, a non-profit that employs over 1,300 people and has a $96M budget. According to their mission statement, “Heartland Alliance advances the human rights and responds to the human needs of endangered populations—particularly the poor, the isolated, and the displaced—through the provision of comprehensive and respectful services and the promotion of permanent solutions leading to a more just global society.” Like the organization in the opening example, Heartland champions the underserved. But unlike its peer non-profit, Heartland has used its mission as a platform for continual inspiration and growth, expanding its efforts across domains including housing, healthcare, job skills, and legal protection, and even taking its cause international. At a time when many non-profits are floundering and folding, Heartland is thriving.

This article is about recognizing the difference between a mission-challenged organization and a mission-driven one—and understanding how to transform the former into the latter.

Diagnosing Mission Issues 

Having worked with many organizations facing mission issues over the years, we’ve observed several patterns and symptoms. Sometimes the problem is that the organization lacks a clear mission or has a misguided, uninspiring one. For instance, when we recently asked the head of a faith-based non-profit television broadcaster what their mission was, he replied, “To grow our Nielsen ratings.” That may be a reasonable goal, but it’s not a mission people—including employees and donors—will rally around longer term. Organizations like that have mistaken a strategy or tactic for a mission. In other cases, the mission may be compelling, but it’s become lost in the routine of the day to day, serving as a rationale for daily operations after the fact. The non-profit I mentioned in this article’s beginning displayed elements of both scenarios: they had a mission touting empowerment through the provision of community-promoting tools, but it was overly focused on what they already did, especially the publishing aspect. In fact, 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 producing their publications instead of carrying out their larger mission. They’d stopped inspiring themselves to take on increasingly greater challenges and to identify and pursue the most valuable partnerships.

Though the organization was still providing services to the community, it wasn’t leading systemic change, and thus failing to have its desired impact.

Non-profits can run off the mission rails in several ways. But it’s hard for organizations to tell if they’re facing mission-related challenges merely by reconsidering their mission statements. Instead, we encourage organizations to look for more subtle internal and external signs of mission issues. Here are several of the most common symptoms we’ve observed at mission-challenged non-profits:

Internal Symptoms

  • A disengaged board of directors. At mission-driven non-profits, 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. At mission-challenged non-profits, the board may 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 the executives 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 non-profit may 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, rather than expanding their 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 non-profit because . . .” A we-can’t approach is a common strategy for avoiding the good anxiety I mentioned above. Can’ts maintain the status quo—and prohibit growth. Mission-driven organizations promote change, transformation, and risk-taking as part of their culture. They replace “we can’t” with “we can figure this out” and other affirmative statements.
  • Internal silos. Organizations of all kinds are breeding grounds for silos: departments or groups that become too rigidly focused on doing things their way and protecting their turf, failing 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.

External Symptoms

  • The phone isn’t ringing. It may seem obvious, but mission-challenged non-profits tend not to be sought out by those who need their services. Is the organization invited to take part in important initiatives or bid for major projects? For example, the City of Chicago called on only a handful of service organizations to address the needs of the Hurricane Katrina victims arriving there in 2005. Among them was the mission-driven Heartland Alliance, which had achieved a strong reputation as a smart, can-do, creative, innovative organization. In fact, the city trusted Heartland to bring together and lead other non-profits to help the victims. Many other groups with missions similar to that of the Heartland Alliance weren’t contacted because they weren’t perceived as having the right capabilities or being well-connected players in that space; they just weren’t on the city’s radar. Similarly, the media is more likely to tap a mission-driven organization than others for their 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 contacts who can vouch for them.
  • The money isn’t coming. Another obvious one, perhaps, but mission-challenged non-profits don’t get the funding they need or feel they deserve. The funding community has limited resources, and these tend to go to organizations about which they can get excited—in other words, mission-driven groups. Mission-driven groups keep their funding base engaged in issues of mutual interest and updated on new developments. They also solicit input from funders on the non-profit’s direction and programs, taking any feedback to heart.
  • No work on the network. Mission-driven non-profits network with other players in their ecosystem, including government organizations, associations, and fellow non-profits, sharing ideas and motivation. As the previous two points suggest, mission-challenged non- profits tend to enjoy little interest from other parties, whether funders or those who need their services. But 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 littleto advance their cause or help them grow. This is true not only on the organizational level but on the individual level. Employees at mission-challenged non-profits tend to stay in their offices instead of arranging meetings and lunches with those who can help their cause.
  • Misguided competition. Competition among non-profits occupying the same space is natural and even healthy, often stimulating creativity and higher performance. But mission- challenged non-profits tend to use the wrong criteria to measure themselves against peer organizations. For example, rather than exploring the full range of options to achieve their mission, a cancer-focused non-profit may aim only to host a more lavish cancer walk than a competitor. Similarly, they may 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. We have observed that many non-profits are blind to most or all of these symptoms, allowing the problems to build on one another: boards and leaderships fail to challenge the organization to be more, and they also ignore signs that the players who should see them as valuable don’t. Many of our clients, including household-name organizations, have never asked key 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 an organization limping along with little purpose or impact.

From Mission-challenged to Mission-driven

The good news is that non-profits can take several mutually reinforcing steps to address mission-related issues. Here are some of the recommendations we make to move organizations from mission- challenged to mission-driven.

  • Look internally first. To change their impact, non-profits typically need to change themselves. Economic and other environmental factors are important, but too often they serve as easy excuses. So a first step includes taking a hard look within the organization for the symptoms noted here and others, and seeing environmental factors as representing opportunities—for example, to reinvent the organization and its mission—rather than barriers.
  • Perform a mission audit. A major component of looking internally can be performing a mission audit to shed light on several key areas including: (1) whether the mission is relevant to current environmental conditions; (2) whether the organization is equipped to carry out the mission; (3) how well organizational leaders, staff, and even major donors understand and can talk about the mission. Mission-driven non-profits have relevant missions that are understood by key internal and external players and that they’re well-equipped to carry out. Mission-challenged organizations don’t.
  • Do an environmental scan. Non-profits seeking to become mission-driven are well-served to study several high-performing organizations in the same space, to compare the peers’ approach—mission statements, programs, partnerships, staff/board leadership, buzzwords—to their own. How can they improve their approach to compete with those succeeding in their domain? Environmental scans typically yield high-value action items and, in turn, real results.
  • Focus on feedback. As noted earlier, mission-challenged non-profits fail to seek feedback on their mission and execution. They will benefit dramatically from interviewing leaders from civic, government, non-profit, academic, and business groups about how they perceive the organization and its leadership, who they think of as exemplary non-profits in the domain in question, what their top issues are, and many other important topics. Often it’s best to use a third party to ensure thoughtful, genuine feedback, a key currency of the mission-driven organization.
  • Wake up (or break up) the board. The board, whether currently engaged or not, needs key information from the mission audit, environmental scan, and feedback. The board needs to know how employees, funders, and community leaders feel about the organization—good and bad. A board with potential will be motivated by this information and begin to challenge the non-profit’s leadership on key issues. An effective board will also undertake annual updates of the organization’s strategic plan, paying careful attention to how well it fits the current environment. A good board will create, review, and embrace metrics and dashboards around financials, operations, and impact. Perhaps most importantly, a strong board will avoid blaming, shaming, and justification, recognizing that ultimate responsibility for the non-profit’s performance rests squarely with them. A board marked by “can’ts” won’t be doing any of this. And that’s a clear sign that it’s time for new board membership.

Of course there are other key steps for non-profits to take, such as concrete measures for reducing silos. But following these recommendations will go a long way to taking a non-profit from mission-challenged to mission-driven. As a case in point, the non-profit noted in the beginning has been making great strides toward becoming mission-driven. They have a comprehensive strategic plan in place now; their board meetings feature spirited dialogue reflecting multiple points of view about the organization’s future; there is a lot of positive anxiety floating around the halls; they sought feedback from community leaders—not surprisingly, they were perceived as ineffective and unimportant—and took it to heart; and they reorganized to diminish silos. They put themselves on the road from mission-challenged to mission- driven, and so can your non-profit.