mission drift

Bleeding Hearts, Cash, and Mission Drift


"Mission drift" is typically associated with organizations who inadvertently or inappropriately lose focus of their mission and begin dabbling in other areas, although organizations can and at times need to consciously shift directions. Avoiding unproductive mission drift can be difficult, especially for small nonprofits run by bleeding hearts (no offense intended, we all bleed for certain causes).

A nearly harmless drift:

A startup nonprofit that I have worked with provides a very specific service to a very low-income, disenfranchised, and predominantly immigrant population. They exist to serve X need, but in the process they get to witness all of the other needs in the alphabet, from homelessness to sexual abuse to malnutrition.

During the holidays, their devoted team members were particularly vulnerable to mission drift and there were several instances of giving away cash from personal wallets and brainstorming about a giving tree or free food cabinet.

Why is this a problem? It isn't...if your nonprofit exists in a vacuum where no other community services are available and you have endless resources. In this case, you're simply becoming more comprehensive. Drift away!

However, in most cases this type of band-aid reaction causes more harm than good. Not only do we lose focus on what we need to do to serve X need to the best of our ability, we also distract our target clients from accessing the organizations that are experts at providing the ancillary services they need. The homeless client is better served by a referral appointment with the local housing provider than with the twenty that was slipped to her out of sympathy.

A more detrimental drift: 

On the other end of the spectrum, when you have bleeding wallets or business-oriented executives, drift is prevalent for different reasons, most often the draw to cash.

Unfortunately for many human services organizations, the glow of government super grants is often too tempting to turn away from. Instead of focusing their efforts on serving X need, I witnessed as an organization loaded up their existing team members with the task of launching new services in an arena they had zero expertise in.

Why? Because said services were in vogue and $100M+ government contracts were out to bid.

The organization didn't even get an award, but the program had to be in existence to apply and it would be too much of a black eye to turn back now. Needless to say, they aren't serving their new side mission well and the mirage of increased credibility will fade with the poor outcomes and the soon-to-end service fad.

Maintaining mission perspective

The above examples are highly prevalent in the nonprofit sector. Our causes naturally come with other symptoms, whether we start off working toward clean air or ending cruelty to animals. Funding is deliberately used as a mechanism for change, our causes attract passionate leaches who hope we can add their cause to our momentum, and nonprofit work attracts employees who can't help but see how we could do more.

In fact, nonprofit executives are constantly accused of neglecting their duties. As COO of a behavioral health nonprofit, I had the unsavory duty of working with the endless stream of government auditors. One particular auditor was of the bleeding heart variety and should have become a prosecutor with her ability to latch onto a small mistake and make it into murder. However, they all lacked perspective.

We were constantly told we needed to address the barriers to successful treatment outcomes. From creating veteran-specific PTSD programs to posting outreach workers at the homeless shelters to providing referral specialists to the emergency rooms, there was no shortage of ideas (which of course came across as demands without funding).

When you fragment your organization to try to solve every problem associated with your cause, you cannot be effective.

The perspective that nonprofit organizations function to solve all of the problems that come along with their cause needs to end.