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Defeat Mission Creep and Master Your Nonprofit's Messaging to Maximize Impact

Mission creep is nonprofits' gradual shift of focus from one cause to another. Learn how you to avoid blurring your brand's vision and maximize your impact.

Eric Ressler
December 9, 2020
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Like all brands, social impact organizations organically grow and evolve over time. But if you’re like many social impact leaders, new grant opportunities or synergistic partnerships can drive you to say "yes" to tangential causes. The problem is, you may not realize that your added causes are blurring your brand’s vision.

There’s a name for this. It's called “mission creep.” It’s the gradual shift of focus from one goal to another. One minute your mission is centered around food insecurity. The next you’re tackling after-school programming for inner city youth. While your intentions are good and the causes at hand are worthy, it can be a slippery slope when you expand your mission. And it can have negative impacts on your organization that you may not realize.

Don’t worry. There are ways to tell if you're caught up in the creep — and better yet, multiple approaches to getting out of it. Let’s take a closer look.

7 Side Effects of Mission Creep — What Your Nonprofit Should Look Out For

As a smart social impact leader, you know that your messaging is vital in gaining support, fundraising, and scaling impact. Supporters want to know they can make a difference, as do your funders. Engagement from both camps is based on a sense of purpose and clear communication. When mission creep enters the picture, your audience might get confused about your organization's mission and story. To your funders, mission creep can make your organization appear spread too thin. It can seem as though you are unable to really make progress on any one part of the vision.

Your organization will organically grow over time. But if you’re experiencing mission creep (rather than evolution — pragmatic steps to get closer to executing the vision), the following scenarios may sound familiar:

  • New grant, new program. When awarded a new grant, you begin to spin up a new department within your organization. You create new workflows and add new team members. Sometimes this means your organization is evolving in a productive way. But if you're doing this as a way to access funding rather than move forward with purpose, take a step back.
  • What exactly do you do again? The impact your organization is trying to make is no longer easy enough to explain to your grandma. Too much is out of focus, and your theory of change doesn’t align with your day-to-day reality. Your board members and staff may have a hard time summarizing it, too.
  • Make a list of everything you do. Many organizations have a long list of initiatives. But if you start a list and find yourself getting lost, that is likely telling you something.
  • Your narrative is hazy. What is your "why?" You should easily be able to craft a narrative to explain and support your social impact cause(s). Why do you do what you do? It’s important to be able to back up what you’re championing with an impassioned story — and mean it. Your supporters and funders are looking for a compelling narrative with which to connect.
  • Your staff is burnt out. Staff in the nonprofit sector are used to working hard, but if your personnel are burnt out could show you they're trying to do too much.
  • Metrics don’t lie. You should be tracking and measuring your engagement, list growth, fulfilled donor pledges. That data will influence your communication initiatives to get you the most traction (i.e. donations, new donors and supporters, influencers, press). How is that all looking? Where you experience the most engagement should tie in with your mission. If not, it should be an indicator that you should take a meta look at your mission.

Now that you can spot the signs of mission creep, there are a few approaches you can take organizationally and in your communications to optimize your vision.

Defeating the Creep and Making an Even Greater Impact

Progressive social impact leaders know what they are working to achieve. But mission creep is good at taking over even the most organizationally savvy team.

Maybe you need an approach, or combination of approaches, that blocks out the noise and makes your most meaningful messages — and top priorities — clear. Consider taking these steps:

  1. 1.
    Ask the hard question first. Start with the difficult question of whether or not your nonprofit is at a point in its evolution that there is a need to streamline the mission. This is the most challenging approach, but sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same. This may look like taking a step back to refocus on your original purpose and vision, even if it means cutting programs or initiatives.
  2. 2.
    Perform a digital media audit. To really manage and master your messaging, perform regular audits of your various digital platforms. You’ll want to begin by taking stock of the messaging on your website, social media, emails, and any other marketing materials. For example, what are you leading with on your homepage? Is it clear what your mission is? What stories are you telling? What are you not saying that you should include? Most importantly: How does it all fit into your theory of change? In this digital-first world, it is vital that you precisely tune your digital presence if you want to make any sizable impact. Your priorities should be clear.
  3. 3.
    Define your differentiator. If you have a niche focus, like improving food systems, you need to own it. Lead with what makes you different. You have already established yourself in one area of focus, so take a look at what people emotionally connect with about that. It’s in doing this that you better define what your purpose really is instead of jumping in anywhere there’s a need, like say community recycling and waste education. If you decide it makes strategic sense to do so, you can continue to invest in some of those additional endeavors. But if you find that your shut-in meal delivery and your recycling and waste education is too much, stay in your lane. You can still be involved in your additional endeavor by contributing to the conversation, but not by leading it. You're already leading the conversation in your niche area of focus.
  4. 4.
    Do a 360 on your organization’s strategic plan. Knowing your strategic plan involves owning the ins and outs of your revenue stream. Prepare a holistic view of your organization by looking at the main source of your funding and why it comes from there. Is the majority of your restricted or major gift funding related to your core purpose and mission? Or, has it evolved to include programs that stray from the core mission? When your communications aren’t related to your main area of focus, it’s hard to expect your fundraising to align with, and support, your core mission.
  5. 5.
    Form a partnership and join forces. You don’t have to take on everything yourself. In fact, we’re willing to bet you could easily identify synergistic organizations that are also working on systemic change in your niche (or tangential to your niche) in the ecosystem. Reach out to those organizations and see what you could achieve individually if you could work together. Could you both grow your list, get press, and spin that into individual fundraising?

Whatever combination of approaches you decide to adopt, remember at the end of the day, it’s cohesive communication that gets the job done. A compelling and comprehensive story that includes all of the work that you do, in a way that your supporters understand. Your supporters are invested and care about how and why you do what you do. And, they want to know how they can effect change alongside you, with your leadership to guide them. You owe it to them to provide a clear understanding of where their time and money is going so that they can feel like they made a real difference.

When you cut out mission creep, you streamline your messaging. Your impact reaches farther, wider, and more effectively when you don't try to do too many things at once. But with a little effort, your brand’s vision can be corrected — no hindsight necessary.

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