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Mission Drift: Avoiding the Slippery Slope

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Grantseeker Monthly

You’ve likely witnessed it. Maybe as an onlooker when it happened to your favourite charity, or perhaps when the course of your organization was changed by it, a slow tide you were unable to resist.  According to John Paterson, an executive management consultant with over 20 years experience in non-profit organizations, mission drift is commonplace in the charitable sector.

While the instigator of mission drifts varies, in Paterson’s experience the search for funding is “the cause [organizations] are most easily persuaded by.” Why? In the competition for limited funding, it is tempting for charities to go where the money is – even if these opportunities fall outside their core mission - and adapt their strategy after the fact.

What is Mission Drift?

Mission drift is when a nonprofit unintentionally moves away from the organization’s mission. This is an important distinction from when an organization consciously changes their strategic vision. Charities can, and do, adjust their mission to better address community needs. This article addresses the first scenario: when an organization inadvertently changes direction.

Why is Mission Drift Bad?

The mission is the raison d’etre of an organization. It provides direction and purpose for the organization, motivates staff and volunteers, is the appeal to donors and other supporters, and provides a means of evaluating organizational achievement. Paterson tells us that your mission gives passion to the people around your organization, and deviating from this can reduce your effectiveness and stature within the community.  “Your mission that you have so proudly framed and stuck up on the wall doesn’t mean a whole lot if you are getting money for a whole bunch of things that are a little off target.”

Richard Grassby-Lewis, former CEO of NGO Index, warns that charities adapting themselves according to funding opportunities can lead to an overlap of services. This is especially a problem when charities do not have the expertise or structures in place to be moving into these new areas.

Mission drift may also unintentionally affect a charity’s standing with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). One of the most obvious (but often missed) areas of charity compliance is the requirement to comply with the organizations’ stated objects. A charity is restricted to carrying out activities within the scope of these objects, which are contained in its letters patent, articles, or constitution.

Avoiding the Slippery Slope

The transition into mission drift is more shades of grey than it is black and white. “I don’t think there’s any particular boundary that once you’ve crossed it, you’ve sold your soul to the devil,” Paterson tells us.  “How much of a problem it becomes depends on far the drift is allowed to go.”

Paterson encourages charities to bring any questionable funding opportunities to the board of directors: “The board doesn’t need to do the day to day administration of the organization, but if there’s money out there that could be attained by going a little bit off your mission, that’s a good discussion to have.” Likewise, Theresa LM Man argues that a strong focus on your mission stems from good governance: the board of directors should, at a minimum, do an annual review of charity programs.

Lastly, if your organization starts to see the signs of mission drift, it may be time to go through a full strategic planning process. Although time consuming, it is a sure fire way to avoid pursuing immediate rewards at the expense of long-term goals.

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This blog post was featured in Grantseeker Monthly, the e-newsletter of Grant Connect. To receive monthly fundraising tips, blog posts, and interviews with funders, register for this free e-newsletter!

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