On Mission Creep

Mission is the unifying principle or statement of purpose that causes an organization to form and stay together. Mission is why we get up in the morning. In the beginning it is tightly focused and others rally to it because their beliefs align with the mission of the organization. This is one of the reasons organizations grow so quickly when they first form. There is still a passion from the founders and a clear articulation of why the organization formed and how others can contribute by joining.

In some organizations, there is a temptation to grow in areas outside the tightly focused mission. This process, called mission creep, is very dangerous for the organization and can cause it to lose its effectiveness. The same passion and sense of purpose that caused others to join are not as attractive if the organization starts to spread into less focused areas.

In even the best run nonprofit associations resources are stretched thin. There are always more worthwhile projects than resources to carry them out. This is defined in economics by Robbins who said “Economics is the science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” These alternative uses are infinite. Unless the organization can focus on the most important areas of operation, resources will be spread to thin to carry out the mission.

Mission creep can also influence how the organization is perceived by others. Potential funders, sponsors, members, government entities, the media or society at large will observe the results created by the association before making a decision to support it. Associations that are deliberately focused on their mission and not engaged in non-mission related activities (no matter how worthwhile) can be measured against the results they achieve with the resources they are provided. This could improve funding or attract more members to become involved because of the perceived effectiveness of the organization.

A murky mission can also add unnecessary complexity to an organization and make it difficult for others to decipher. Mission statements that are unclear, too long, or too crowded with competing priorities are very difficult to communicate effectively. Organizations with this problem would be well served to revisit the mission with an eye toward simplifying and focusing it on the most critical elements.

Guarding against mission creep should be a major activity of the board and staff. By resisting the temptation to move in organizations inconsistent with the mission, you can improve the effectiveness of your organization.