Nonprofit boards develop a powerful vision for their mission and are responsible for adhering to it. Everything a nonprofit does should circle back to its mission, and that’s what makes mission creep so risky.
In a perfect world, boards would never stray from their missions — not even a little. Nonetheless, boards can be tempted to dip their toes into a program or activity that is only moderately connected to their mission. When that happens, it’s commonly called mission creep.
Mission creep may go undetected for a time, but donors and stakeholders will eventually get wind of it. If someone brings it to the board’s attention, the right thing to do is to take action to prevent any negative consequences.
A few examples of nonprofits that never veered from their missions and some that crept back to their missions prove that it’s in everyone’s best interest to stay mission-true.
What Is Mission Creep?
If you look, you will find many variations of definitions of mission creep. ‘Mission creep’ refers to a nonprofit that decides to run programs or activities unrelated to its mission.
Mission creep does not usually happen overnight. It occurs gradually over time. It starts when an individual or an organization asks you to do something slightly outside the activities your mission supports. Once your nonprofit veers off the track, it’s easy to go a bit farther off the track. The danger is that your nonprofit can end up completely abandoning its mission.
Donors with their own interests can sway a board away from the nonprofit’s mission over the promise of funding. Another reason nonprofits veer away from their mission is that board members decide the nonprofit needs to adapt to the community’s needs.
Nonprofit boards often face challenges with finding the balance between meeting public cries for help and staying true to their missions.
How Mission Creep Negatively Impacts Your Nonprofit
Mission creep can seem pretty harmless, but it can have steep consequences. Straying from the mission — even a little — may require additional funds or people, causing a strain on the budget. Moreover, donors and stakeholders may begin to lose faith in your board. Employees and staff members will likely become confused and wonder whether the nonprofit is worth investing their time in. Furthermore, mission creep can harm your nonprofit’s reputation.
As your board gently creeps away from its mission, the board will need to re-strategize. Strategizing requires setting new goals and a plan for achieving them. New programs and activities require staff training and money to run them. Both require boards to revisit the budget and reallocate funds to support the latest programs and activities. As the budget strains, it can negatively impact the programs and activities that are faithful to the mission.
At some point, donors or stakeholders will begin to question whether your board is straying too far from the mission. They could question how their donated funds are being used and, perhaps, suddenly stop supporting your nonprofit altogether.
When mission creep becomes palpable, employees and volunteers may lose faith in the nonprofit, and the management could face a sudden employee turnover problem.
Nonprofits are not designed to be all things to all people, and your board should not be motivated to try.
Examples of Mission Creep Where Nonprofits Crept Back
The term mission creep originated with military operations where military leaders decided to shift operations to adapt to new information or changing circumstances. Corporations and nonprofits have recognized that mission creep is just as relevant to their organizations.
A couple of examples will make clear how a nonprofit can stray from its mission even when a board has good intentions.
Nonprofit Quarterly points to an example of mission creep at a Detroit, Michigan nonprofit that recognized mission creep was occurring and eventually turned things around successfully.
Focus: Hope was founded in 1967 by Father William T. Cunningham and Eleanor M. Josaltis to provide social services and job training. Over fifty years later, the nonprofit has built its budget to over $30 million and employs around 200 people. The problem with mission creep came about because economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, poor educational opportunities and other deep-seated problems are inherently interlinked in the struggling city.
Focus started to lean too heavily on housing which was only a part of their original mission. The solution was to spin off a senior housing property initiative and delegate the program to a newly formed 501(c)(3).
The Atlanta Music Project offers a second example of a nonprofit that expanded its original mission but drew the line at non-focused expansion.
The focus of the nonprofit’s mission was to help children develop music skills that could be used to achieve personal success. The program trained students in a band and orchestra program. They partnered with a parks and recreation program to provide transportation, homework assistance and meals. Eventually, the Atlanta Music Project added programs to assist children entering college.
After the pandemic, donors approached the nonprofit and offered the board increased funds if they would be willing to expand beyond music programs. While the extra funds were tempting, the board ultimately decided what they were being asked to do was too far outside their mission.
Examples of Successful Nonprofits That Remained True to their Missions
We can also point to several nonprofits that established strong missions and are determined to hold to them steadfastly.
- INJAZ — A nonprofit that offers entrepreneurship education for youth in the Middle East turned down an opportunity to expand into start-up funding and incubation, citing they wanted to focus on what they do best.
- Taylor University — An Indiana Christian college that motivates its leaders to “be more true to who we are than we’ve ever been before.”
Overall, nonprofits can only succeed with the help of competent board members, donors, and stakeholders. Any one of these parties can suggest that a nonprofit should move in a direction away from its mission. Opportunities will undoubtedly come your way, but nonprofits need to focus heavily on their intended purpose in considering them. The stakes are too high to allow your mission to fall by the wayside. Sometimes, it’s better to take a pass.