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August 3, 1996

Staying True: Mission Matters

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When I talk to leaders of generosity organizations about the need to do good and stay viable (competencies 1 and 2), it’s usually an easy sell. They get it. They’ve already thought about these two aspects of their organizations. What they haven’t thought about so much is the third competency: staying true to mission. Yet this competency is just as important as the other two.
Just about every organization was originally built around a missional core. Most still today have a precisely defined mission statement. For example, Nike’s mission is “to bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete in the world.” The nonprofit TED’s mission is “to spread ideas.” But even organizations that have taken the time to draw up a cool mission statement can have a tendency to drift away from that mission in practice.
The result is an organization that feels to its public like it doesn’t know who it is or what it’s supposed to be doing. It might even feel inauthentic, like it’s pandering to the masses instead of sticking to a passionate purpose. And these kinds of smoke and mirrors are always found out in the end.
Staying missional, on the other hand, leads to stability and growth. Camping out on your mission makes it possible for you to build expertise, create a reputation, and generally get very good at what you do.
Peter Greer, in his book titled Mission Drift, describes organizations that are Mission True and others that are Mission Untrue. He especially has in mind churches and parachurch organizations when he says,

Without careful attention, faith-based organizations will inevitably drift from their founding mission.
It’s that simple. It will happen.
Slowly, silently, and with little fanfare, organizations routinely drift from their original purpose, and most will never return to their original intent.

In fact, any type of nonprofit, not just the faith motivated, can slide from Mission True to Mission Untrue.
What can cause your organization to drift from its mission? Many things. Here are just a few:
• Adversity can throw you off balance. If you have a bad quarter, or a big contract falls through, or an initiative fails, you may be tempted to either cut back on doing good or jeopardize your financial viability. Either reaction threatens your identity as a generous organization.
• Success can make you arrogant or lazy. Don’t think it can happen to you? Check out Jim Collins’s book How the Mighty Fall for an analysis of how even the best institutions can be tripped up by their very success. Lose your motivation, lose your mission.
• Adapting too much because of customer wishes can gut your core mission. All good strategy requires adaptability and occasional strategic pivoting, but that’s different from being so swayed by market forces that you forget who you are. If you believe in your mission, don’t trade partners in the middle of the dance every time someone winks or strolls your way.
Whatever the cause for drifting, the line at the bottom of the swim lane that can keep you headed in the right direction is knowing and sticking to your mission. If you haven’t identified your values, mission, and vision, then do it. Talk about your purpose often. Test whether you’re being consistent with it from top to bottom of your organization.

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