Challenged Or Driven

June 15, 2012       John Davidoff      

Jane Addams Hull House in Chicago, Ill., recently shut its doors after 122 years. It’s not alone in its struggles. For more than a century another nonprofit in that city has worked to combat racism and poverty, using a platform of publishing and community organizing.

But now that other nonprofit’s executives believed that they were stuck in auto-pilot, going through the motions to produce their two primary publications and organize a handful of community events. The mission had become an afterthought, with little attention paid to the bigger picture of their aspirations and goals.

That problem was manifested in multiple ways, from the nonprofit board’s poor engagement with executive leadership and staff to the fact that the organization sought no feedback from key community leaders and funders. Not surprisingly, the organization had a steadily declining profile with both vital groups.

Contrast that nonprofit to the Heartland Alliance, another Chicago-based organization championing the underserved. According to its mission state­ment, “Heartland Alliance advances the human rights and responds to the human needs of endangered populations — particularly the poor, the isolated, and the displaced — through the provision of comprehensive and respectful services and the promotion of permanent solutions leading to a more just global society.”

Unlike the nonprofit mentioned in the opening, the missions of the Heartland Alliance and other mission-driven organizations are evident in everything they do — fundraising, operations, marketing, and other areas. In fact, such nonprofits use their missions as platforms for continual inspiration, reassessment, and growth.

At a time when many nonprofits are floundering and folding, Heartland is operating with more than 1,300 staff members and working with a robust budget of $96 million.

Heartland is an example of a mission-driven organization, whereas Hull House and the other nonprofit mentioned above might be viewed as mission-challenged organizations. Unfortunately, there seem to be more mission-challenged nonprofits than mission-driven groups these days. Part of the problem is the current economic climate. Competition has risen while the number of donors, amount of donations, and funding resources have declined. But many nonprofit managers are compounding the effects of the more challenging financial climate with departures from their missions, rather than taking the steps to understand and address factors leadership can control. Leaders become fearful and cynical, which only makes poor outcomes more likely as part of a vicious cycle.

Answering that question of whether your organization is mission-challenged or mission-driven involves understanding the difference between the two types of organizations. To be sure, the difference between the environments of mission-challenged nonprofits and mis­sion-driven ones is evident the moment you walk in the door. The energy of a mission-driven organization is palpable. That is just one of many dimensions separating the two types of organizations. Think about where your organization falls on each of the dimensions below.

Reactive vs. Proactive. A mission-challenged nonprofit tends to react to problems, rather than take a more proactive approach. Sometimes it’s evident in mission statements that are limited to talk of “reducing” or “ending” specific problems. For example, the American Cancer Society’s official mission statement focuses on “eliminating” cancer. The organization also promotes itself as the “official sponsor of birthdays,” a more proactive stance.

As evidence of a reactive approach, a mission-challenged nonprofit might wait for a problem to emerge before taking action, whereas a mission-driven organization anticipates challenges, prepares comprehensively for them, and even takes steps to prevent them in the first place. Take a look at your nonprofit’s stated mission and typical mode of operation. Does it seem reactive or proactive?

In-the-boiler-room vs. Driving-the-train. Mission-challenged organizations get stuck in everyday operations, like the nonprofit from the opening example and its narrow focus on generating its existing publications and events. They’re trapped in the boiler-room of the train, shoveling coal to keep things running, instead of making decisions from the lead car, keeping their mission and higher-order strategy in mind. In a mission-driven organization, leaders and the board are continually asking questions about how best to carry out and even expand their mission, taking input from the staff, target populations, community and government leaders, funders, and other groups. They think carefully about day-to-day operations, but don’t get lost in them, and always think about how their operations connect to their mission. Mission-challenged organizations might look busy, but they’re often speeding off the rails, with operations disconnected from the higher mission.

Engagement vs. Disengagement. If your nonprofit features regular, thoughtful interactions among its leaders, board, staff, and community leaders, chances are that it’s a mission-driven organization. Engagement can and should happen at every level — including engagement with the mission and engagement among all stakeholders. Sid Mohn, president at Heartland Alliance, said that this kind of engagement must be “continuously fed, almost like daily bread.” He believes the organization must be in an ongoing process to monitor how staff experiences the mission within the organizational culture.

“Most folks want to be involved in something bigger than themselves and being mission-driven is the way to elevate them to that transformational engagement,” said Mohn. “It’s the dif­ference between me and we.” Poor communication, a disengaged board, and isolation from community leaders and donors, in contrast, mark a mission-challenged organization. Some mission-challenged nonprofits go beyond disengagement to outright destruction, with infighting, back-stabbing, and toxic relationships at every level.

“Corporate” versus entrepreneurial. If you work with a mission-driven organization, it will likely have an entrepreneurial environment, where individuals and groups take ownership of the mission and organization, engaging actively with it in everything they do. A mission-challenged nonprofit might have a more “corporate” atmosphere, in the sense that people allow themselves to be bound and defined by narrow roles and responsibilities. That leads, in turn, to silos made of groups that don’t communicate or share ownership of the mission.

A more corporate mentality has been cited as one of the factors in Hull House’s demise. Board members were viewed as less familiar with nonprofit operations and reluctant to grapple with the operational and financial challenges the organization faced.

Low-energy vs. High-energy. As noted earlier, mission-challenged organizations lack energy in their missions, their people, and their initiatives. They are fatigued or even absent. Consider an education industry association where employees watched the clock more carefully than schoolchildren, with the office becoming a ghost town every day as 5 p.m. neared.

Not surprisingly, the nonprofit staff was out of touch with its board and membership, and complaints and rumors about the leadership filled the halls. In mission-driven organizations, there’s a wealth of positive energy, with employees at every level excited about what they’re doing, and a highly engaged leadership team and board.

Abundance vs. Scarcity. Mission-driven nonprofits, like optimistic people, see abundance, especially in terms of opportunities for them to drive impact and raise funds. Consider the nonprofit People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Norfolk, Va. In 2010, the year of PETA’s 30th anniversary, the organization grossed $50 million, breaking its fundraising record. Unlike mission-challenged nonprofits, PETA uses its mission to keep its 300 employees upbeat and motivated, including in the recent economic downturn. “Relentlessness is key here,” says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. PETA clearly sees abundance where others do not. Mission-challenged nonprofits see scarcity, which colors attitudes toward fundraising. “There’s nothing out there,” they say. Sure enough, their poor performance seems to back this up.

Of course, these aren’t the only dimensions on which nonprofits differ, but they are among the most important, helping to distinguish mission-driven organizations from their mission-challenged peers. Take a close look at your organization on these attributes and others, to see which category fits best. If you see evidence that it’s mission-challenged, take heart: with commitment and thoughtful action, even the most mission-challenged nonprofit can become an exemplary, mission-driven organization. NPT

John Davidoff is founder and managing director of Davidoff Communications, a national consulting firm based in Chicago, Ill., specializing in mission-driven strategy, marketing and strategic alliances. His email address is