Last week I wrote about a dragon. This week is about a unicorn. No kidding.
I’ve written 64 posts for this blog, up to today. The phrase “mission-driven” pops up frequently. It seemed like a good concept. However, I recently had a major insight – the one I am sharing with you.
I realized “mission driven” is a deceptive, destructive term. Wrong for me to use. Wrong for you to accept.
I’m making amends now. Let’s discuss……
Your organization’s mission justifies its tax exempt status, its position in the community and the professional esteem you enjoy. Your mission benefits society. It reflects the finer impulses of our civilization. It is the mechanism your constituents need to affect the changes they seek.
Your mission is intangible idealism, focused and structured. It deserves to be fed and honored and displayed. It is something you can sell. But not something you can measure or bottle, because mission is a large, overarching abstraction. It is a brilliant winged unicorn that shapes your work and gives you focus and legitimacy.
Mission is cool. But you sure don’t want to be mission-driven!
I was wrong when I used that term in earlier blog posts. That error became apparent when writing last week’s post about the Dragon That Lurks. (Big deal, that post. Got a huge readership because so many nonprofits are screwed-up by their board’s failure to create and impose a focused mission. While ruminating on that, I realized the next post – this one – had to walk back that concept of being mission-driven. So here we go!)
My new insight about mission-driven is shaped by misfires I have witnessed and mistakes I have made. See if there is anything familiar in the following:
- Nonproductive employees who could never improve were retained on the payroll. (I did it. You may do it, too.)
- Disloyal employees, whiners and game-players were forgiven and retained – so they could disrupt again.
- Activities, some well-intentioned and some downright foolish, were funded, even though that caused financial starvation to projects that were more important and more productive.
- Senior administrators countenanced substandard systems, sloppy accounting, outdated software, crummy offices.
- The territorial imperative encouraged employees to establish function-silos, avoid collaboration and rigorously protect the self-perceived sovereignty of their area of responsibility.
- Counterproductive, useless people were retained on the board because nobody had enough commitment and confidence to purge deadwood and then select and train competent directors who would accept responsibility for an effective governance structure.
Any of the above familiar to you? If so, the next few paragraphs will be important.
The concept of nonprofit mission is a beautiful thing. But here I write about the curse of nonprofit mission. Your mission is your reason for existing– your organization’s focus, its cause, its justification, its license to function.
It is also one humongous obligation.
And that brings us to mission-driven. For over forty years I used the term . Now I see how harmful it can be. Reverence for that concept can betray a noble effort, turning the cause into a faux-unicorn. So I am writing to suggest that mission-driven can become a myopic, self-indulgent attitude that actually betrays your mission!
The “Mission-Driven Syndrome” pathology is a destructive form of nonprofit reasoning that goes like this:
We are a public service organization. For us the rules are different. Nonprofits can not afford to operate like a business. Fortunately, we don’t have to. We serve the needs of society, not the motive of profit.
There is enough baloney in that statement to feed the NFL for a season – both active and retired players!
Sure, mission must define your organization – its staff, its programs, its marketing, its constituent relations. But rhapsodizing abut being mission-driven is too often the comfortable path to irrelevance.
Every time you make soft decisions, or permit non-decisions, in the name of managing in a humane, nonprofit manner…… every time you emphasize qualitative measurement but disregard its quantitative counterpart…..every time you subordinate productivity to collegiality…. every time you avoid real-world accountability…. every time you yield to the inner goodness of your heart and accept sub-standard performance or inadequate results…..every time you do these things you mess up your operation and undermine your integrity.
Mission-driven is nice. Results-driven is ethical!
- Be results-driven. This is not an option. It is a legitimate moral imperative.
- Be results-driven. That is the way to get the most out of your limited financial and human resources.
- Be results-driven. That is the way to deliver on your commitment to mission. That mission does not merely deserve your best effort – it demands it!
- Be results-driven. Because society expects it of you. As do those who believe in your mission. As do those who depend on you to fulfill that mission.
Be results-driven – thoughtful, strategic, accountable, demanding, focused, quantitative, resourceful, hard-nosed. Be results-driven so you can deliver on your promise to bring success to that looming, overarching abstraction, that brilliant winged unicorn you have been charged with feeding and honoring.
Mission-driven is nice. Results-driven feeds the unicorn.
COMING NEXT: You probably know that our company is the national supplier of imprinted branding products to public radio stations, programs and networks and to a large number of other nonprofits. I am charged with writing this blog to provide our clients throughout the country with advice about how to evaluate, select and use these items. But I keep sliding into areas that are more fun for me – sharing observations about a broader range of nonprofit marketing, management and governance issues. It turns out that our readership is large and growing. So, as long as the readership keeps increasing, I will stay on this path. Help me out. Share your thoughts with me – especially your suggestions about topics I should cover in the future. John Burke (firstname.lastname@example.org) 303-823-0327