Couple of years back, I found myself in a heated discussion with the policy guru for the Holy See Mission to the United Nations. A major piece of “legislation” was going before the UN on the status of refugees, and the Church was negotiating protections for those who were fleeing harm. Given Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato si’, which called for the mutual care of the planet, the Holy See took every effort to ensure the protection of ‘climate’ refugees in the coming years. Those protections, though, didn’t extend to every type of refugee. For the Holy See, protections for LGBT+ refugees (i.e. those fleeing harm because of the sexual orientation) was out of the question.
I found their stance offensive, but their argument was diplomatic in that they didn’t feel countries like Turkey, Hungary, or others would sign on to the agreement if LGBT+ protections were added. Rather than leading the way with moral authority, their position helped those other countries solidify their anti-LGBT stance.
On the one hand, what was I to expect? The Church is clear about its stance on gay rights and its role at the UN, and one conversation with the Holy See Mission wasn’t about to change that. On the other hand–and I did point this out–the Church is equally clear, in theory but not always in practice, about the sacred worth and dignity of all humankind. Did it really matter why someone was fleeing from violence? No one becomes a refugee for fun. Still, the organization’s long-held mission outweighed the organization’s stated values.
I’ve seen this happen a lot in the nonprofit world. You’ve probably heard it phrased something along the lines of, “Well, that may be important work, but it falls outside our mission mandate” or “We have to be laser-focused on what matters to us if we want to accomplish our mission.”
These statements aren’t always ethically suspect. The Holy See example is an extreme case. Sometimes, an organization just has a mission and they want to stick to it. Nothing wrong with that, right?
Nonprofits have a mission for good reasons, after all. There are a lot of problems in our world that need solving. If we ask what the world would look like if we’re successful at solving a specific problem, that’s our vision. Our mission, generally-speaking, is the strategy it takes to get there. And it’s important to have that strategy. It’s like seeing the lighthouse and land ahead of us (the vision) in which case the mission becomes the map and compass and boat and other tools we use for plotting and guiding our course.
Sometimes our mission is so limiting, though, we find ourselves paddling against the current in a canoe when there might be a much easier route. Organizations who use their mission statement to restrict rather than free do so because it’s often been time-tested (“But we always take the canoe!“). They may even have rooted such decisions in good data (“The canoe hasn’t failed us in 150 years!“). But the winds can shift, the seas are rising, and a world with a lot of problems is also a world that’s going to need creative solutions.
It reminds me of starting out in college as a visual arts major, focusing mostly on acrylics on canvas. I was a terrible student, though, because my teachers’ assignments left little room for any creative license whatsoever. The subject was chosen for us, and our expectation was often to match it as closely as possible. It wasn’t that the assignment was too challenging; it was just too boring or tedious. It removed the passion. And while you might have ended up with a beautiful painting that matched someone else’s beautiful painting, what you were gaining in studying someone else’s technique you were equally lacking in what could have been a new creation all your own. The experience was contrary to the whole subject: art.
Nonprofits are no different. I’ve known far too many nonprofit leaders who like to say, “Our goal is to put ourselves out of business” but then engage in the same, tired practices that keep the business running. Decades have passed and we need more nonprofits to solve the world’s growing problems, not fewer. But I have yet to find any nonprofit succeeding in putting itself out of business, and part of why goes back to our restrictive missions and our lack of creativity.
When I say our missions are too restrictive, a big part of that is that we want to offer solely micro-solutions to macro-problems. Here, I’ll make up a good example of what I’m talking about: A global feeding organization is working on making sure food and water are provided to people in areas where there are droughts. Their website depicts smiling children in Ethiopia whom they have fed. Their mission is about providing food and they’ve done that well. So, why do they find themselves struggling to feed more and more people? Climate change. They remain silent on that issue, though, because they worry that if they speak up about climate change, which they are quick to remind everyone is outside of their mission mandate, they may alienate well-meaning donors and supporters who simply want to make sure they are feeding hungry kids without all the politics.
This make-believe feeding organization does great work. No question there are kids who are alive today because this organization was there feeding hungry people. And, you could argue, there are other organizations that are already doing good work tackling climate change. What’s wrong with an organization focusing on just functioning as a feeding program? The flip side of this equation, though, is an ethical question over whether the mission (that is, the strategy to feed kids) is more important than the vision and values (that is, that no kid goes hungry). If we really were to start with our end goal, as opposed to our strategy, wouldn’t we think differently about that question over climate change? I mean, you’re trying to keep people alive. Don’t you want to cast your net as wide as you possibly can? Don’t you have a moral obligation to do so? The list of reasons why people aren’t getting food (droughts caused by climate change, poor access to transit or good roads in rural communities, etc.) are vast, but if the answer your mission is offering (we bring food to areas with poor access) fails to address the other reasons, then you fail your vision, too. Even when that’s the whole reason you got into this work.
Understandably, nonprofits are short on resources, and it’s a fair statement to say that an organization cannot tackle every single macro issue that affects the problems we’re trying to solve. But more and more, donors and supporters are–rightfully–demanding organizations do what they can to up their impact.
That said, here’s my thought: over time, we’re going to have to rethink whether the mission statement, as a guiding model to our work, is really the right approach. What if, instead of always looking back to the mission for inspiration or to make sure we’re on task, we look back instead to the values and vision and tweak the mission more frequently so we’re more likely to realize the vision? Re-orienteering ourselves might put the ship in a different lane without ever losing sight of the lighthouse or the land. Re-orienteering ourselves might also get us thinking about our boat or the engine we’re using instead of demanding that we always stick with the same old machinery to do the job we need done.
That won’t happen easily. The way nonprofits have turned the ‘mission statement’ into some impenetrable, immutable sacred cow isn’t just bad policy for the organization; it’s dangerous to the organization’s overall health. It helps solidify cultures and traditions within an organization when a healthier nonprofit will shift and change with the times so vibrant thought-leaders will grace the organization with their passion and new thinking. It makes the goal the strategy instead of letting the goal be the goal itself, which runs the risk of employees chasing after the wrong metrics. It sets bureaucratic expectations of repeating old behaviors that worked rather than allowing for healthy risk-taking that can literally change the world.
The world’s problems are growing. We just can’t afford to keep doing the same mission when the vision is getting harder to realize. And we may have to take some radical steps so we’re continuing to keep our eyes on the prize.