We need to rethink the concept of “mission creep”

[Image description: A blue-ringed octopus floating around. They are bright orange with bright blue rings all over. This octopus’s adorableness hides the fact that this species is among the most venomous and deadly of all creatures, containing venom a thousand times more powerful than cyanide, enough for each octopus to kill 26 people within minutes. Not sure how that is relevant to this blog post, but it’s still interesting. Image by pen_ash on Pixabay.]

Hi everyone. Quick reminder before we get started. This Wednesday, August 25th, 11am PT, Community-Centric Fundraising is having a one-year celebration/reflection. I hope to see you there. Meanwhile, if you’ve benefited from the CCF movement or your org has made changes because of it, please share.  

There are only a few things we all agree on in this work. One of those things is that mission creep is no good, very bad. Mission creep is like mixing trash and recycling together. It’s like not tipping a hairstylist or restaurant server. It’s like soaking a cast-iron pan in water overnight. It’s bad.  

The term originated in 1993 and concerned the United Nations’s peacekeeping efforts during the Somali Civil War, and now it’s used a lot in our sector to talk about when organizations start doing things outside their stated mission, which causes organizations to waste resources on stuff they’re not good at, or that another org is already doing more effectively. When orgs don’t stick to their missions, it often leads to confused constituents, annoyed partner orgs, irritated funders, and a less effective field.    

But like everything else, there comes a point where philosophies and concepts are misused or are taken to the extreme, to the detriment of the sector. I’m starting to see this with our fear of mission creep. We need to rethink it. Our acceptance of the idea that all orgs should specialize in a few things and not do too many things has been having some unintended consequences, including the punishment of organizations led by marginalized communities, the entrenching of foundations into single-issues, and the lack of collective actions around critical systemic issues.

Organizations led by marginalized communities often have broad missions, and this is sometimes hard for people to understand. This broadness is often seen as a weakness, a lack of organization, when in reality it is a culturally-relevant necessity. A decade ago I led an organization focused on serving the Vietnamese community in Seattle. We started with academic programs serving youth. We then branched into serving younger kids. Then we started a youth employment program. Then we helped their parents. Then we included helping elders vote. At multiple points colleagues told me, “Your mission is drifting. You should focus on one program and drop everything else.”

I would have loved that. It was a lot trying to run multiple programs and being told by funders that we didn’t seem to know what we were doing because we were doing too much. But these programs were what community members indicated they needed, and that they could not get from other nonprofits or from the government because of lack of trust or lack of cultural responsiveness.

Many organizations led by communities of color and other marginalized communities don’t have the luxury to focus on one thing. What may seem like mission creep is just us responding to interconnected needs our constituents have indicated we should focus on. Funders and donors’ not understanding these dynamics may be a reason why it continues to be so difficult for grassroots, culturally-focused organizations to get funding for their vital work that no one else could do as effectively.

Funders’ fear of mission-creep when applied to themselves greatly affects the sector. Foundations tend to make it a point of pride to focus on single issues and solutions. Homelessness. Environment. Early learning. It shows discipline. It shows they’re not just throwing random things at a wall to see what sticks. Which means every foundation has “priorities” that we nonprofits must “align” with, and God help your soul if you apply to a foundation that has priorities that your org doesn’t tackle.

I remember how frustrating it was trying to fundraise for my previous organization, RVC, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the sector and supporting them, while simultaneously developing the capacity of organizations led by communities of color. The lack of support for leaders and organizations of color affects every single issue that we all care about, and RVC has developed an effectively model that can be replicated across the sector. And yet, when we approached funders, the response was often, “Sorry, we only focus on poverty,” “sorry, we are focused education this year,” etc. One funder told me that they would give us funds if we trained leaders to work specifically in addressing homelessness, because that was their priority at the time.

Entrenched societal issues are interconnected and complex, and tackling multiple things at once may be exactly what we need to do. Funders’ lack of acknowledgement of these dynamics, combined with fear of drifting from their missions, pushes them into silos, which then compels nonprofits to retreat into our own specific areas as well. No wonder we continue to face the same issues despite working on them over decades. Fortunately, some funders are starting to own up to this single-issue problem, for example here in this article written by leaders of the Eisner Foundation. But it remains a serious challenge.

Overall, the hyper-avoidance of anything perceived as “mission-creep” has weakened our sector’s ability and readiness to work collectively on vital issues. For instance, in the US hundreds of bills have been and are being passed to suppress voting, specifically voting by people of color. And most nonprofits are doing nothing about it, believing this to be the work of advocacy and civic engagement organizations, who have always struggled getting resource. This is concerning. No matter what our specific missions are, voter suppression is something we all need to care deeply about, along with a host of other vital issues like addressing racial injustice, changing the tax code, reversing climate change, protecting journalistic integrity, getting more women of color elected, etc. We should follow the lead of the organizations focusing on these issues, but we all definitely need to get involved.

I know many organizations have strategy screens to prevent them from drifting too much away from their core mission. These screens include questions like “does this potential new program/collaboration align with our mission? Will in bring in revenues? Will it stretch our existing staff or other capacity? Are other nonprofits doing this more effectively?” etc. These questions may be helpful as a start, but they are still very much focused on individual missions.

With so much at stake, our strategy screens need to include some additional questions to assess our role in the wider sector. Questions like “Is this effort outside our individual mission but is something we need to be engaged in for the collective good?” “Is this effort not something we would normally be engaged in, but it is needed and it seems no one out there is willing to lead on it or have the capacity to do so?” “Is our stated mission still relevant? Would this new program/collaboration be a form of mission creep, or would the inclusion of it make our mission more responsive to community needs?”

While nonprofits think these things through, funders also need to reexamine how you’ve internalized the concept of mission creep. Many of you have used it to deny funding to organizations led by marginalized communities, believing that they’re disorganized for doing too many things, when in reality their broad array of programs may precisely be the indication that their community trusts them enough to ask for services, and you should be funding them more, not less. You need to do some reflection and get out of the destructive single-issue mindset. And you should be funding all of us to work together on critical societal problems like voter suppression.    

We should focus on our core issues, while still devoting time and energy to address systemic factors that affect all of us and the people we serve. While every organization has its own mission and specialties, we need to remember that our sector has the collective mission of creating a just and equitable world. We cannot become fearful of “mission creep” to the point where we can no longer see that the forest is getting rapidly engulfed in flames, because we’ve been trained to stick so closely to our one specific tree.

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