How can our nonprofit address a new need without mission creep?


By Stephanie Taylor

As nonprofit professionals, it’s in our nature to help as many people as possible. When we see a new opportunity to expand services and improve the lives of more people, it’s difficult not to jump right in and set a plan into action. That’s particularly true when there’s new money available for services and your organization wants a piece of the pie.

But expanding without careful planning is a time-tested recipe for mission creep. A nonprofit with the purest intentions can suddenly find its mission diluted, its staff in over their heads, and its clients and donors upset or even angry. Fortunately, there are guiding principles and questions a nonprofit can use to ensure that a new direction is the right one.

The first question a nonprofit considering a new service should ask itself is, “Is anyone already doing this really well?” Take a look at your target population and see if there is an organization successfully providing the service you’re considering.

If that's the case, serious thought should be given to a partnership proposal. The other organization has already done the heavy work of laying an operational foundation, and can tell you what assets your organization has that would be of value. For example, an organization committed to supporting youth entrepreneurial efforts might benefit most from another nonprofit’s relationships with schools in the area.

By working together, both organizations can stay within their wheelhouse, while expanding services to new areas without encountering the perils and pitfalls of mission creep.

If the answer to the prior question is no, and there isn’t an organization already devoted to the effort under consideration, it doesn’t automatically follow that your nonprofit should be the one to lead the charge. It’s at this point that it becomes instrumental to refer back to your strategic plan, and carefully consider whether the program or opportunity fits within your nonprofit’s mission.

There’s nothing wrong with an organization evolving with the times — in fact, it’s a necessity for survival — but it must be done strategically. Providing new services should be a decision made by the board, which can consider the implications thoroughly. If the board determines the new opportunity is truly necessary in changing times, it can alter the strategic plan, put other projects on the back burner, and free up the resources needed to launch successfully in this new direction.

Seeking the board’s approval and an alteration of the strategic plan also helps guard against the slippery slope of mission creep. If it takes leadership-level consideration to add new services, it will be difficult for departments to slide too far down the mountain until somebody notices. Without this safety net, the impact of your current programs could get watered down, your staff stretched too thin, and you might be viewed as an organization lacking a clear direction or commitment.

By following this process, your organization’s employees not only will know they have the resources and approval to add new services, but donors and clients will be assured that their stakes are in good hands.

About the author: Stephanie Taylor has spent 15 years in the nonprofit sector working in almost every capacity, from program delivery to operations. She specializes in leadership, change management, and nonprofit operations, and holds an MBA in Nonprofit Management from Eastern University.