Why Nonprofits Fail

by Michele Martin on May 29, 2012

Just as it is true for all nonprofits, CILs face the risk of failure. Not surprisingly, what trips up most nonprofits are the same things that cause CILs to fail. An interesting post on the Passionate Giving blog on 6 Reasons Why Nonprofits Fail. The reasons?

    1. Program becomes more important than People
    2. Money is valued more than Relationship
    3. Getting Things Done is better than Doing the Right Things
    4. Percentages are valued over Impact
    5. There is a focus on Power & Control vs. Effectiveness & Opportunity
    6. Growth becomes the objective vs. Greatness

In a nutshell, nonprofits fail whey lose sight of what they are really doing and why they are doing it–when they drift from their missions.

Recognizing Mission Drift

How do you know when you’re drifting from your mission? Richard Male has some good suggestions in his post, How to Recognize and Deal with Mission Drift, including, looking for dollars first and then building programs around the dollars, constantly operating in crisis mode and trying to justify stagnant or decreasing numbers.

The X-Factor blog suggests some additional symptoms in their post Avoiding and Correcting Nonprofit Mission Drift, including:

Intensely focusing on internal needs rather than external IMPACT.
Compromising the mission to secure funding – aka chasing money.
Justifying new funding or program opportunities as extensions of our mission.
Allowing the urgent to usurp the important and pursuing the immediate at the expense of the long-term.
Diverting staff time and focus from the core mission to accomplish a lesser good.

Correcting Mission Drift
Once you recognize that you’ve drifted from your mission, your task, of course, is to correct this. One strategy suggested in the X-Factor article above is to have your leadership team and Board explore these questions:

Are all of our programs and funding streams anchored in our mission?
Are we free to fulfill our mission in this relationship (grant, donor funding, or collaboration)?

Has this project (or funding) altered our approach to mission fulfillment?

What actions do we need to take to re-align with our mission?

What is the right thing to do for the clients served?

What is the honorable manner to address this issue?

How do we communicate changes to our clients, staff, donors, and partners?

The National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth offers additional advice in their post, Right on the Money:

“If no one talks about it, it’s not a focus.” Don’t let your mission slip out of view. At program, management and board meetings, always ask how each decision will impact the community, whether it meets the needs of the community, and how it fits into your overall mission.

Know your community. Stay on top of the most pressing issues by hiring staff representative of the community of underserved youth and talking regularly with community leaders, youth and families.

Reach out to other charities. Seek the opinions of other nonprofit leaders to gain fresh perspectives on your challenges. And partner with them to bring your combined expertise to community problems, rather than trying to do more than you’re equipped to do.

Decisions can’t be reduced to formulas. Each organization is as unique as the community it serves. If a funder requires you to deliver services in a way that doesn’t fit your community, propose an alternative and explain why it might make more sense.
Know when to stray. Rice says that in certain cases, modifying your mission—and making the reason for doing so clear to your staff and community—can be the best way to respond to new problems.

Do you recognize when your CIL may be a victim of mission drift? What do you do to address it?

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Daphne Holland September 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm

I volunteer at a small non-profit that has recently experienced major mission drift. I agree with most of Richard Male’s points, but in our case the cause of the mission drift was less about money (although that was a component) and more about the executive director’s burn out. Our mission involves working with an interest group that is notoriously difficult and unappreciative, and the executive director sort of fell into the position as a favor to someone many years ago and now is sick and tired of dealing with all the issues she never really asked for. We’ve been slowly moving our programs away from our mission to less costly programs that are more in line with the executive director’s pet interests than our mission. I think several people in the organization are aware of it, but nobody wants to take on the executive director’s unenviable position and also have few ideas about how to correct the situation. Basically, no one wants to put in the time and energy in this all-volunteer organization to deal with the time-consuming issues. It’s really a shame, because despite having a great year financially this year, the writing is really on the wall. I think if you’re going to address mission drift you have to be prepared for it to be ugly and personal–despite your best efforts to make it civil–and also come with proposals for new programs within your mission AND ways to fund them. As a side note, I partially disagree with Richard Male’s #1 point: Non-profits have to make money, so designing programs around money is fine AS LONG AS THE PROGRAM IS WITHIN YOUR MISSION. That’s the real challenge.


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