Nonprofit Branding: Why “Mission Driven” Can Be Deceptive, Destructive Concept

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 their performance were retained on the payroll. (I did it. You may do it, too.)
  • Disloyal employees, productive folks who were also whiners & game-players were forgiven and retained – so their games could again disrupt morale.
  • 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  • Senior administrators countenanced substandard systems, sloppy accounting, outdated software, crummy offices, poor service.
  • The territorial imperative encouraged employees to establish function-silos, avoid collaboration and rigorously protect the self-perceived sovereignty of their area of responsibility.
  • Counterproductive people were retained on the board of directors 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?At least one item?  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 Pathology” is a  form of nonprofit reasoning that goes like this:

We are a public service organization. For us the rules are different. Nonprofits cannot and must not attempt to operate like a business. Fortunately, we don’t have to. We serve the needs of society, not the motive of profit. Therefore, it is the obligation of society to provide the resources we need.

There is enough baloney in that common viewpoint to feed the NFL for a season – both active and retired players! Maybe the cheerleaders, too….

Sure, mission must define your organization – its staff, its programs, its marketing, its constituent relations. But, for top management and directors, rhapsodizing abut being mission-driven is can be 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 brand and challenge your ability to deliver on your mission.

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, results-focused 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 ([email protected]) 303-823-0327


5 thoughts on “Nonprofit Branding: Why “Mission Driven” Can Be Deceptive, Destructive Concept

  1. Results driven and mission driven are not mutally exclusive, nor should they be mutually exclusive. The bulleted concerns are worthy of attention, but do not argue against a mission and results driven agency. They do point out management weaknesses, board recruitment issues, and overall lack of accountability and employee responsibility.

  2. Thanks for the Comment. I think you are absolutely right! And you make a nice clarification of my point. My concern (in this post) is not with those who fail to achieve as much as possible because of inexperience or incompetence or bad boards. (I write about those folks in other posts.) My focus in this one is on those who think the nobility of the nonprofit mission trumps real-world productivity and accountability.

    There are nonprofit professionals…. good, sincere, talented people…. who don’t realize that being committed to a mission is only the beginning of the relationship. But without results – their commitment is meaningless! Mission is not something you hide behind – it is a platform from which you leap into action in a highly competitive, unforgiving marketplace.

    Keep sending comments. It doesn’t matter if we disagree on future posts. Your insights will be helpful to our readers.

  3. Status Quo is gone with the economy, we can not rest on what has been being good enough. It is time to super charge our mission in relation to our professional results to reach out and grow the organization in ways we have yet to percieve. I am always inspired when I read your posts to continue to shake up and change the organizations I belong to and grow new opportunities.

  4. Great point! It can become easy to get very focused, but on the wrong objective.

    For future topics: I don’t know if you covered the following issue… organizations that are large enough that the people at the very top have lost sight of the work at the trenches level and at times make inappropriate changes to workplace policies. Unless, of course, that sort of thing never happens. : )

  5. Pingback: Nonprofit Branding Blog

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