The Seven Keys: Sharpen Your Message – Mission Under Microscope
by JOSH JACOBSON, MANAGING DIRECTOR
How is this for a provocative statement?
Your mission statement– that pithy, adjective-filled summary that greets individuals who visit your website or read your annual report – might be a sacred cow keeping your organization from evolving and adapting to the realities of right now.
Before you pull out the thesaurus and set about finding synonyms for “dynamic,” consider if your organization’s mission statement is as relevant now as when your organization was founded. And I’m not talking about the words on the page; I’m talking about what those words mean. Is your organization’s purpose for existing still compelling for your audience?
I recognize this is dangerous territory, and for that reason alone the act of revisiting mission is usually done with intent to restate rather than redefine. As noted by Scott Provancher in our Innovation Series earlier this year, “sometimes nonprofits get so focused on a singular mission that opportunities are missed… just tweaking the mission over time could demonstrate opportunities to meet other needs.”
Savvy organizations are careful not to “chase the dollar” or be so flexible as to suggest unsound leadership, but neither are they so rigidly committed to an organizational purpose that they miss opportunities to increase impact. These organizations are apt to ask two important questions on an annual basis:
- Is the need we set out to meet still a need, and if so, what is its priority?
Consider the plight of the horse-drawn buggy operators at the turn of the 20th century, unsure of the staying power of the automobile and slow to adapt to that changing landscape. At times, the nonprofit sector mirrors that same time in history, with leaders who are reluctant to ask the tough questions or see the bigger picture. The most difficult mirror in which to peer is the one that evaluates the relevance of your mission. During the downturn, the inherent competition for contributed revenue brought this into sharp focus. Organizations learned the hard way that stakeholders had not prioritized them in their volunteerism and gift making. Still others found that the constituencies they once served had moved on to other resources, demonstrating little “brand loyalty” when it came to their services.
PMA has conducted many such studies, both as a part of structured strategic planning, but more often as a part of fund development planning. In seeking to find ways to drive revenue, these organizations were faced by the sad reality that their organizational purpose was no longer as relevant in the eyes of the public. The key to this exploration is knowing when to fight and when to adapt. Is the community wrong? Have they just not heard your forceful message? For some leaders, the blinders may be the assumption that your mission is meeting an important community need in the first place. One of the most important conversations nonprofits can have with their stakeholders is seeking to affirm, or challenge, the organization’s purpose.
- Are we too narrowly focused? Or not narrowly focused enough?
With confidence that your organizational purpose is still relevant and valued, the next thing to ponder is the scope of your organization.
Consider the case of Seigle Avenue Partners, an organization founded in 1999 to serve the needs of the Seigle Point community in Charlotte’s urban core. In 2009, the organization announced a major expansion, renaming itself Freedom School Partners and unveiling a plan to service many more Mecklenburg County communities. If the organization’s leadership had felt encumbered by the historical mission, they may have decided that the Seigle Point community was the priority constituency and remained forever focused on serving only that population. But with a vision that sought to tackle a larger footprint, the organization’s mission was revised to address a broader focus.
Whereas vision is meant to be defining of the long term direction of your organization, your mission statement should provide clarity of purpose. Attention is often paid to organizations with the ambition to grow and increase the scope of purpose, but perhaps most deserving of praise are those organizations that recognize the enormity of their mission and seek ways to refocus. It takes strong leadership to acknowledge having bitten off too much and seek ways to right-size that ambition. Perhaps your focus was originally statewide, but really needs to be on a single geographical region. Or the population you sought to serve was too broadly defined, and needs to be sharpened to demonstrate unique services.
It is telling that the best examples of redefining institutional purpose are found in the for-profit world, where a company like the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Co. sets out to mine a mineral deposit for grinding-wheel abrasives and ends up becoming 3M – one of the most successful companies in the world. The trick for the nonprofit sector isn’t to try and invent the next Scotch Tape – but it is to be able to recognize when your mission has become a horse-drawn buggy.