As an organization ages, it is not uncommon for it to experience “drift.” Drift can be a natural process of the shifting landscape with which an organization operates. A controlled approach to change is not really the same as drift, however. The March of Dimes comes to mind. Their original purpose was to eradicate polio, which for all intents and purposes has been accomplished. Now their focus is premature birth. This is a shift in the mission, strategic and intentional, not really a drift.
Drift is more of when an organization allows smaller, seemingly benign changes to occur and suddenly one day, the organization is not what it was founded to be. For example, did you know that Harvard University was founded to “prepare ministers of upright character?” Probably not what you would have guessed. Another example of this phenomenon is the YMCA. Think about the YMCA. Young Men’s Christian Association. Since 2010, the association has dropped everything but the “Y.” This concept has been a significant problem, especially for Christian organizations, although it is not exclusive to them. In fact, there was a book written just a few years ago by by Anna Haggard, Chris Horst, and Peter Greer, called Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches. It is a compelling look at the changes that cause a Christian mission to eventually look nothing like its founding purpose. It examines the dangers of considering “why turn down a donation when the donor is only asking you to tone your Christian message a little bit?” This is reviewed from their own organization, HOPE International.
For anyone who has every been in a leadership role within an organization, Christian or not, their is always a time when a donor asks you to consider making seemingly small change to incur their financial support. However, few organizations have put safeguards in place that will prevent drift from happening. Without such safeguards, it is possible that over time, an organization you dearly love no longer looks familiar. The reality is that your mission didn’t change overnight. It took many small decisions such as accepting a donation with a particular string attached, or selling a product that doesn’t really match the purpose of the organization. Sometimes you chase a customer or donor who doesn’t really support your mission but they have a network or financial resources that would be useful and now the organization is putting too much emphasis on work that is not mission driven. As Steve Haas of World Vision says: “Getting eaten by a whale or nibbled to death by minnows results in the same thing, although one demise is easier to diagnose.” Mission drift is the exact same thing as death by minnows.
How do you prevent mission drift? Well, it starts with the board of directors. A board that is not fully invested in the core mission of the organization is more susceptible to mission drift than one that knows the mission and does not sway. As Christianity Today reports, “The role of board members in keeping an organization on course is vital. Their top priority is guarding the mission and identity. If board members drift, offer no true accountability, or don’t take their role as guardians seriously, the organization’s mission is in major jeopardy.”
The next major group is the executive team. For a nonprofit organization, it is imperative that the CEO has full buy-in to the mission and values of the organization. If the CEO’s mission and values are contrary to that of the board and the organization, it is time to go, even if he or she is a top performer. I just isn’t worth the risk. It could even impact your fundraising, but the short term risk is far less than the long term benefits of staying true to the mission. Remember, there are donors that are true to the mission, and donors with strings attached. The donors who know and believe in your mission will stand with you in the long run. Those with strings attached could jump ship any time that they feel their own interests are not being served. Additionally, the mission centered donors may cease to support you.
In the end, the organization is only as strong to the mission as the leadership. For Christian organizations, don’t expect to ward off secular ideas if your individual board members and staff are not active members in a local church. For secular organizations, the same concept holds true. If your board members and staff don’t practice the values in their own lives that they claim to represent through the organization, opportunity for drift grows. If you are part of an organization or support one, it may be time to ask how they safeguard the mission. If they don’t have any or seem to brush off the idea, you may want to reconsider your support. If you are a board member, it might be time to evaluate just how many minnows may have been munching all along.