Saturday, September 6, 2014

Stagnant or In Motion: What's Your Nonprofit's Mission?

WHAT'S SO IMPORTANT ABOUT A NONPROFIT'S MISSION STATEMENT ANYWAY?  A recent exchange of emails with a museum client about their mission statement underscores the potential they can play in a nonprofit's growth and development.  I've been encouraging this client to go beyond the usual, inward-focused litany of activities that virtually every museum in the world cites as their mission.  Yes, museums collect and preserve stuff.  But if that's all they did, they'd be more like mausoleums than museums.

The museum director and his staff have had several robust discussions about what the museum does and the audiences they serve.  It's clear from their conversations that the museum is much more than a place full of stuff.  There's meaning and resonance there, too.  Sorting through that has been both an intellectual and emotional exercise.

Museums are not the only victims of tepid mission statements.  There are plenty of nonprofits of all stripes that hew to a litany of well-worn phrases and dusty metaphors.  Why do so many nonprofits seem content to go through life with a wishy-washy, nondescript, beige mission statement?  When the competition for audience and money is so fierce, when separating one's organization from the pack is so important, why do organizations time after time turn a blind eye to marking their turf as boldly as possible?  Is there something about having to declare to the world "we are this and we own it!" which causes us to choose the safe position, the middle of the road, neutral over drive?

If a nonprofit is going to stand for something, shouldn't it be something worthy of the blood, sweat and tears we pour into them?  Are we afraid to go too far out on a limb for fear we can't or won't live up to our reason for being?  Fear of your nonprofit's ability to be more than 'meh' for sure won't attract much attention or support....or terrific boards and staff talent.  

Here's where Newton comes in and even though it's about physics, I think it can be applied to nonprofits:  those in motion, stay in motion; those that are stagnant, stay stagnant.

Stagnant missions do nothing to provoke movement.  They are lazy; virtually useless words on a piece of paper that few read and nobody takes to heart.  Stagnant mission statements and the thinking behind them provide cover for tame, even timid, leadership.

Missions in motion call out and heighten a nonprofit's points of distinction.  They draw a clear line around an organization's reason for being and its public benefit.  Missions in motion stretch an organization's potential.  They are energizing, because they are alive with meaning.  And they facilitate big, powerful thinking.