February 04, 2021

Why Your Mission Should Not Drive Your Strategy

Too often, nonprofits call upon the mission statement to play a role it is not equipped to fulfill: strategy driver. On the one hand, if a program does not line up with the mission, it should be rejected. On the other hand, having a program that seems to “fit the mission” is not, on its own, justification for adding or keeping it.

A well-crafted mission statement is specific enough to provide direction yet general enough to allow for growth and expansion. Said another way, the mission provides the context for strategy by locating the work of your organization within a set of broad parameters: ending homelessness; eradicating poverty; increasing high school graduation rates. From there, the organization needs specific boundaries within which it will pursue its mission. Those boundaries are the stuff of strategy.

A rule of thumb is that the broader the scope of the mission, the more important it is to set clear strategic boundaries. Faced with a new opportunity, the main consideration is not whether it fits the mission. The important question is whether or not the program supports the strategy you have developed to advance the mission. Imagine trying to end homelessness or eradicate poverty without any sense of priority or limitation.

In short, the mission communicates the broad aspirations for social good. Strategy, done well, helps keep things out.

If not the mission, then, from what or where does strategy originate? The foundation of my work with nonprofit strategy is what I refer to as working from the inside out. In simple terms, this means that before we look forward for opportunities to advance the mission, we first need to look inward to clarify who we are.

In the language of nonprofit strategy, this is known as the organizational core. The organizational core is comprised of three elements:

  • Your core clientele, defined as the people who benefit most from what you do.
  • Your mission impact, which describes how your core clientele benefit from your work.
  • Your defining qualities, which are those characteristics that represent or signify your approach to achieving mission impact.

To illustrate, consider how a homeless shelter might bring focus to its work by clarifying its organizational core. Within the homelessness population in the community, are there groups with whom we can serve better than other groups? Will we take in people with active addictions? What do we required of residents once we take them in?

Second, how do we define success among the group we define as our core clientele? Is getting them off the street on a cold night sufficient? Will we work with people to conquer their addictions? What do we expect to happen to them after they leave us?

And third, given the core clientele and the intended benefits for them, how do we approach work? Is there an explicit focus on spirituality? What about an overt attempt to introduce formal religion? Is our approach to undesirable behavior punitive or restorative? Do we employ a specialized curriculum or do we improvise based on individual circumstances and needs?

With a better understanding of these core elements, the homeless shelter can look outwardly and consider their strategic options. Do we seek to serve more people in our core clientele? Is it time to expand the definition of our core clientele? Do we maintain the focus on the core clientele and address a broader set of needs within that group?

Defining the organizational core as the launch pad for strategy is akin to pushing your sled down the hill. The journey has just begun and is unlikely to be smooth and predictable. What it will be, however, is intentional and focused.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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