Mission Creep, Turtles, and You

western painted turtle

Photo: Sean McCready

If your organization has been around for a while, you may discover that you have a few lines of business that don’t fit into your mission, or perhaps fit only in the broadest possible way. How does that happen?

Mission creep is the slow and insidious process of taking on activities that don’t belong within your organization. In the non-profit world, these tend to sneak in with new revenue opportunities. Typically, it looks like this: a large, juicy grant becomes available. You qualify for it… barely. So you apply for the grant and you promise to fulfill the deliverables it requires, even though it means taking on a new area of activity or two. You take on that new activity, and your community begins to depend on you for those benefits, as you begin to depend on that source of funding year after year. Voila: mission creep.

Mission creep pulls you away from your core purpose, and dilutes your expertise and your resources. It also dilutes your brand: the attributes that once defined you no longer do so. You’re no longer the Mission Creek Museum Society; you’re the Mission Creek Museum Society and Turtle Rescue.

How do you cure yourself of mission creep? You can rewrite your mission statement to accommodate your new, widened responsibilities, or you can wean yourself off your extraneous lines of business—and also potentially wean yourself off the funding that comes with it. It’s a painful decision, and a painful process. Be aware that if you widen your mission statement, you are not only making a home for these new activities—you are opening the floodgates for myriad new distractions in the future.

The best way to combat mission creep is to be vigilant against it from the beginning. Don’t jump at financial opportunities simply because they’re lucrative. With each opportunity, ask the big questions: Is this in our mission? Does this get us closer to our vision? Are we the right people to be taking this activity on?

Ultimately, if you’re taking on a new project simply for the cash, you should seriously consider something like opening a liquor store. It’s a license to print money, they say. (And if that suggestion provokes a visceral negative response, then stop and write down all the reasons why it’s a terrible idea—and apply some of them next time someone proposes a new line of business just for the cash.)

Mission creep doesn’t just come from chasing grants—it also happens when board members (and sometimes staff members) bring their pet causes to the organization. They show up at a meeting with a beautiful, earnest, heart-felt presentation about all the turtles that need rescuing, and why your historical society has no choice but to help. “It’s the right thing to do!” they implore. “We can’t sit around talking about history when TURTLES are STARVING!”

If you have a strong mission statement, you can invoke it against these new distractions: “Yes, it’s a great cause, but it’s not our cause.” But if your mission statement is vague—”Mission Creek Museum Society connects people with heritage,” say, then it’s a bit harder to keep those turtles out. Turtles are part of your heritage too, you know.

Keep your mission statements strong and your strategic plans current. Vet your board members carefully, and keep them focussed. Or you may just find yourself surrounded by adorable little reptiles.

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One Comment

  1. Very illuminating article, as I have also discover to my cost that mission creep can easily happens in the consultancy and research sector of non-for-profit such as universities.
    And the explanation is exactly the same: someone will say ‘this is a good income opportunity and if we don’t take it we won’t considered for others’ and before you know it, you are dealing with really onerous application processes and jumping through unnecessary hoops while at the same time thinking ‘why am I doing this which distract me from my core mission?’.
    May be the article needs to have a final piece of advice: politely ignore the doomsayers that say your organisation will perish / be overlooked / loose standing if they don’t take these ‘sideline’ funding opportunities, as others that really meet your organisation’s core mission will always come!

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