Mission Creep: 6 Steps to Keep Your Organization on Track

Mission creep in nonprofit organizations: it’s something we encounter often, but it’s hard to find actionable resources to help avoid it. We’ve compiled some no-nonsense nonprofit recommendations for curbing mission creep while maintaining growth and providing your core services. 

What is Mission Creep and How Can it Affect Your Nonprofit?

You may have heard the term floating around the nonprofit management space, but what does mission creep mean? Let’s take a moment to define mission creep in general terms:

Mission Creep Definition: (noun) The gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization. 

While the definition of mission creep is straightforward, avoiding it in practice can be challenging. Nonprofits and other service-focused organizations (like higher education institutions) are regularly faced with the challenge of balancing the need for adaptation and the desire for growth, while staying focused on their foundational missions. You would be hard pressed to find a nonprofit that has not had mission creep at some point.  

Mission Creep vs. Strategic Decision Making

There’s a difference between the mission creep concept and making necessary decisions to move your mission forward. Sometimes, an organization and its mission may need to evolve to continuously address the changing needs of a community. For example, March of Dimes, an organization originally formed to address polio, reevaluated its mission when a vaccine nearly eradicated the disease. Because the need for advocacy and support was significantly reduced, March of Dimes assessed its existing resources, strengths, and partnerships to redefine its mission. Today, March of Dimes cares for “mothers and babies at risk.” 

Mission creep can occur when an organization over-prioritizes stakeholders’ individual interests. On the other hand, strategic decision making should involve all stakeholders to adapt a mission or program to better address a community’s evolving needs.

Mission Creep Causes

Mission creep is a phenomenon that can affect any type of organization in both the public and private sectors (you may have heard of “bureaucratic mission creep”). But nonprofits are especially concerned about mission creep. Many 501(c)(3) organizations have multiple stakeholders, often with varying expectations. Clashing interests, tempting funding opportunities, and the desire to solve more problems can pressure nonprofits to stray from their original mission. To avoid nonprofit mission creep, organizations must face the challenging task of weighing the interests of funders, board members, staff, and beneficiaries equally. 

The Impact of Mission Creep on Nonprofits

What happens to nonprofits that stray from their missions? Here are some common side effects of nonprofit mission creep:

  • Resources Stretched Too Thin – Today’s nonprofits are already operating on limited resources (like staff, funding, or time). When an organization expands its programming beyond capacity, they risk diluting existing resources. In other words, organizations cannot fully support the programs that fall within scope of their intended mission. 
  • Redirected from Core Purpose – Every major decision an organization makes should  reflect its mission, or core purpose. When nonprofits begin to make decisions that will not move them toward its desired end goal, mission creep occurs.
  • Mission Becomes Too Complex – When an organization takes on too many projects or causes, its mission can become too complex. Without clear focus and direction, stakeholders can feel misdirected and pull support from programs.

What does mission creep look like for nonprofit organizations? Here are some examples of nonprofit mission creep:

Nonprofit Mission Creep Examples

Case Study 1: A nonprofit works to empower young women through sports. An external stakeholder proposes funding for a new program to help young men improve literacy. While the proposed program is a noble cause, it would need a whole new set of skills and programs to be developed or even require new staff to be hired. These new requirements could result in mission creep. This nonprofit has the unique skill set to address their current need, and could risk straying from the values of other stakeholders, resulting in diminished overall impact. 

Case Study 2: An animal rescue organization works to find loving homes for local abandoned animals. A staff member is passionate about adding an animal day-care program for working pet parents. While the program has the skill set to care for pets with homes, the organization is already short on resources. Taking on the additional programming would result in stretching their funding and staff too thin, and therefore they risk hurting their core programs. This is another example of mission creep. 

How to Avoid Mission Creep in 6 Steps

Mission creep is entirely avoidable. Here are some specific actions your organization can take to maintain focus on its purpose:

1. Craft a Focused Mission Statement

Your mission statement holds your organization together; it guides all organizational decision making and communicates desired outcomes to stakeholders. So it’s essential that your organization has a clearly defined, effective mission statement. 

Characteristics of an Effective Mission Statement

  • The mission statement is focused. According to this article, many nonprofits’ mission statements are too broad and too general. Your mission statement should be specific, succinct, and concrete. If it’s too broad or too general, it will provide little guidance for future decision making.
  • The mission statement addresses unmet public needs. A mission statement guides all nonprofit programs. Therefore, your mission statement should be informed by the unmet needs of your community. Many nonprofits choose to carry out a community needs assessment to ensure they are addressing true gaps in service. 
  • The mission statement inspires stakeholders. Stakeholders, like your donors and volunteers, should feel connected with your mission and inspired to support your cause.   
  • The nonprofit takes into account its unique skills. Your nonprofit has a unique skill set and resources to address specific gaps in services. Establish an effective mission by considering your niche and leveraging the unique skills your nonprofit has to offer. Your mission statement should reflect these specifics.  
  • The nonprofit forecasts change. Your mission, and your mission statement, should communicate specifically what your organization is doing to secure a better future for members of your community. Therefore, your organization should consider societal  changes that will affect and steer the future direction of your mission. 

Examples of Effective Mission Statements

This mission statement by the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is specific, inspiring, and articulate:

“Producing and presenting the greatest examples of music, dance, and theater; supporting artists in the creation of new work; and serving the nation as a leader in arts education.” 

Your mission statement doesn’t have to be wordy to be effective. Take this mission statement by Public Broadcasting System (PBS), for example:

  “To create content that educates, informs, and inspires.”

While Tesla is a for-profit company, nonprofits can learn from their punchy, focused mission statement that forecasts future change:

  Tesla’s mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

2. Use Your Mission Statement to Make Key Decisions

Your mission statement should act as a filter for major decision making within your organization. So when a funder proposes a new initiative, or you need to make important decisions for moving forward, consider the following questions:

  • Does this initiative/decision  directly relate to our mission statement?
  • Does this initiative/decision reflect our values? 
  • Will this initiative/decision move us toward our end goal?
  • Will this initiative/decision divert or dilute resources?

If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, it may be time to reconsider your decision. 

3. Be Willing to Say No

Sometimes, reconsidering decisions that don’t fulfill your mission can be challenging, especially when offered tempting funding opportunities. In fact, it’s not uncommon for even well intentioned donors to steer nonprofits to fulfill their own interests. The interests of your backers won’t always align with your organization’s. So don’t be afraid to say no to funding that doesn’t reflect your mission and organizational values.

While saying “no” to much needed funding may seem counterintuitive, mission creep can be much more costly to organizations in the long run. What should you say “yes” to? Opportunities that deepen your mission and challenge your organization to grow sustainably.

4. Institute a Process for Decision Making

You shouldn’t have to make these difficult decisions on your own (in fact we don’t recommend doing so). Instead, develop and implement a process for decision making in which all stakeholders are involved. This process should center around a communication plan so that any decisions for new programming, projects, or installment of new funding is communicated to key players. This plan may take form as a monthly discussion panel, or more frequent check-ins to continuously assess organization-wide focus and growth. 

5. Keep Your Beneficiaries at the Forefront

Your nonprofit serves the members of your community using the unique skills and resources available to you. When in doubt, consider your programs’ beneficiaries, or the community members receiving your services. Even when exciting opportunities come your way, you’ll want to weigh the impacts that this decision will have on those you serve. 

One way to ensure you’re staying focused on your mission and its beneficiaries is to regularly conduct a community needs assessment. By keeping your beneficiaries at the forefront of your decision making, you’re more likely to avoid mission creep, and maintain focus on your organization’s end goal. 

6. Revisit and Reevaluate Your Mission

Revisit your mission regularly. As demonstrated by organizations like March of Dimes, times change and we must evolve to meet them. That’s why it’s important to regularly reassess and reevaluate your mission. Your assessment should include some of the following questions:

  • Does the need that our organization addresses still exist? 
  • Do supporters still understand our mission statement? 
  • Are our supporters still inspired by our mission statement?
  • Are we focused on our original purpose? 
  • Are we still leveraging our strengths, partnerships, and available resources?
  • Are we maintaining a balance of interests between stakeholders?

Don’t let mission creep define your organization. By regularly assessing your mission, maintaining focus, and inviting regular communication among stakeholders, your organization can avoid mission creep while inspiring growth.