Mission Impossible?

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on August 20th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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A former board president of a nonprofit recently confessed to me that she and the rest of the board had no idea what the full mission of their nonprofit was.

This comment is scary, for sure, but unfortunately, not surprising.   For, truth be told, my best conservative estimate is that the majority of board members of nonprofits do not know the full mission of their nonprofits, do not know the full breadth and depth of the very thing they are charged with stewarding and protecting—the organization’s mission.

And, if we are telling truth, then let’s tell it all:  this lack of full understanding of what an organization is all about—not just what it does, but what it aims to accomplish by doing what it does—extends deep into an organization.  It is highly likely that the majority of an organization’s volunteers—if fortunate enough to have volunteers—do not understand the whys and wherefores of the organization.  And if you haven’t yet gone there, let me take you there:  the odds are very good that that less than 100% of the staff of a nonprofit really understands the organization’s mission:  what all that it does for what ends and impact.

My statements come from decades of work with nonprofit boards, staff and volunteers.  Of doing strategic planning with nonprofits and listening to the discussions of long-serving and new members of the organization’s community disagree on what the mission of the organization is or what does it matter if they are running programs that just serve boys, because they are good at doing them, even though the mission says “children”.  Of watching light bulbs go on as folks learn that the mission really does say they should be doing education, not just preservation; that they are to be serving all communities, not just one; that they are trying to improve school performance not just provide children a fun afterschool safe haven.  Of watching people go through the motions because they don’t understand how their work feeds into a bigger picture, a bigger goal.

This is a problem.  A BIG problem!

One of the joys of working for a nonprofit is that, at the end of the day, we feel good about what we did that day because we know we are working to make a difference—for people, for communities, for ourselves.  We know that answering a client’s questions is a tool that allows us to accomplish the organization’s mission of empowerment.  We know that curating a show or teaching people to read means that people’s lives will be enriched, new doors will be opened, imaginations will be whetted.  We know that sweeping the hallways and cleaning the kitchen means that people are being respected, nourished and valued.  But when we don’t understand why all questions need to be answered with grace and compassion, all people deserve to sleep and eat in safe and clear surroundings and that art, culture and literacy are not a privilege but a right, our job as employee, volunteer or board member is diminished, as is our ability to fulfill our mission promises.

While it is great that each of us does our work having identified what we see as the purpose, it is paramount that our individual purposes are in synch with the organization’s mission. And while it is great that we feel good about what we do each day, it is essential that we understand how our work fits into the mosaic that is the organization’s mission and that we can speak about the whole mosaic and not just our little piece.

The same is needed of volunteers—be they the volunteers who help run the office, train the dogs or cook in the kitchen, or the volunteers who are the board.  All must understand that they are a very significant part of a whole seeking to deliver a comprehensive impact.  It is essential, therefore, that all of the pieces—not 80% or even 95%–understand and embrace that comprehensive impact and value all of the ways that impact is achieved.

So, where is your organization?  If 100% is the necessity, where are you?  If you were to give a quiz to all of the staff, volunteers and volunteer board members affiliated with your organization about the mission of the organization, what it is, how it is achieved, and what is the ultimate desired impact, would you hit the 100% mark?  And if not, as I am betting you won’t, what will you do about it?

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.