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October 30, 2012
Mission Alignment: Time for an Organizational Adjustment


“The price of greatness is responsibility.” Winston Churchill

Halloween can be an exciting time when you are a kid. Candy, costumes, friends - it’s a time my youngest looks forward to enthusiastically. In fact, she begins dressing up and trying on costumes weeks in advance.

Recently she came out of her room with a pirate’s sword, a princess dress, and hulk hands. Though it was kind of cute it reminded me of some of the nonprofits I’ve seen (and worked with) over the years. They started out trying to be one thing (in my daughter’s case a princess), but because of funding cuts/availability, passions of board and staff members, or other reasons they end up losing focus and are now in a position where those looking in don’t know what they are supposed to be (Princess? Pirate? The Hulk?).

The Board’s Responsibility

It’s the Board of Directors’ responsibility to guide and keep the organization focused on the mission. In our previous article on strategic planning I mentioned that it is important to continually visit the mission – is it clear, accurate and up-to-date? Just as it is important to get a regular health check-up, an organization should make time to review the health of the organization. Are the programs and mission aligning? Do the programs or the mission statement need to tweaked or updated?

Example: Mission Check-Up

A non-profit in Chicago had a mission to provide immediate refuge for children ages birth to 12 whose families were in crisis. By partnering with families and the community, they believed they would strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect in their community. As the organization grew so to did their various programs and services to the community and they soon became extremely busy. On the one-year anniversary of the non-profit the Board and staff came together to review the programs and services. In a white board session they looked at each activity and reviewed how it aligned with the mission of the organization. They found their services fell into four main areas:

  1. Immediate shelter to children in need
  2. Educational/training opportunities for parents 
  3. Outreach and training to the community
  4. Crisis center activities and support for adults

The organization had found that as they helped children in need, often there was a mother or guardian needing crisis support. This resulted in the fourth activity where much of the organization’s resources and time was being focused. As the organization re-looked at their mission they realized that while this service was good it was not within their mission. The board members and staff chose to look at other community service organizations in the area that they could partner with in order to refer adults. This decision allowed the organization to continue being targeted on their mission to provide immediate refuge for children in crisis while still caring about the families of these children.

This example is one that highlights the importance of regular mission check-ups as they can help identify any areas of mission creep (or abandonment). Mission creep leads to confusion for the audience and it is the board’s role to stop it. Once identified, the board can choose to stop offering the service, pass it to someone else, or modify the mission. But that service or program that doesn’t align with the mission, must be questioned and something must change. There are several cases in which an organization has ultimately failed in it’s mission because they were constantly adding programs where money could be found – instead of keeping focused on the mission.

Ensuring Effective Programs

As regular review by the Board of Directors ensures that programs are aligning with the mission it is also imperative that the Board knows that these focused programs are effective and furthering the mission. It is vital to track outcomes or activities within each program. Outcomes are measurable end results and activities are a set of tactics that are used to achieve the outcome. The need for focused outcomes has become more and more important as many non-profits have performed activities and programs but have very little to show by way of evidence. By focusing on outcomes an organization can begin to measure success.

A recent article in the Boston Globe highlights the shift for non-profits to begin employing strategies that have traditionally been used by for-profits. In this article the president of a large nonprofit shares, “If you aren’t measuring what you’re doing, then you’re not evolving what you’re doing. In the for-profit world, companies live or die by whether or not they’re getting better at what they deliver, and in the nonprofit world, we need to be doing the same.”

The article also provides the following example of an organization employing an outcome tracking system:

Roca Inc., a Chelsea nonprofit for high-risk youth, has found that it is possible to measure the progress of changing someone’s life. Before Roca embarked on a radical transformation in 2005, participants considered it a place to hang out and play basketball with friends. There was no time limit on being in the program, and those who took part did not have to meet specific goals. Roca maintained a simple Microsoft Access database of members’ enrollment in GED classes and leadership seminars, but there was nothing to prove the agency helped people become law-abiding, employable citizens.

Now, every move participants make is entered into a software program, from their efforts to stay sober to completing a transitional employment program.

The group’s youth workers are also closely tracked, and outside institutions analyze Roca’s results. One significant finding that came from the overhaul: Those who had the most success holding down a job and staying out of trouble moved out of the program in just two years, leading the agency to establish a two-year model.

“It was all guesswork,” said founder Molly Baldwin, of Roca’s beginnings. “I hope we did more good than bad. But we weren’t really sure ever. Now we’re able to see if we’re being helpful or not.”

It is up to the BOD to help guide the organization into effective programs and services that are focused on the mission. All programs and services should not only have activities that are reported upon but these programs should be linked to outcomes tracking systems. As seen in the Roca, inc. case above the tracking system does not have to be complex – it can be simple and start small.

I recently worked with a crisis shelter that had a difficult time determining outcomes because of the transitional nature of their clients. We developed a simple pre- and post- survey that at least began showing immediate outcomes – such as savings accounts, educational level, income, etc. These details were able to lead the organization to making informed decisions about the successes and challenges within their services.

Why Bother with Outcomes?

In the 2012 report More Money for More Good, research was compiled on what donors are looking for in funding non-profits: 9 out of 10 donors say that an organization’s effectiveness is important. Donors say that information about a nonprofit’s approach, expected results, effectiveness, and past performance—in other words, impact information—is most important to them but hardest to find.

Funders give dollars with the intent to make a real difference. Board members are responsible for making sure this is happening.

Key Steps:

  • Regularly evaluate your organization’s activities: are they in line with your mission?
  • Ensure that every program and activity has some sort of outcome tracking system in place
  • Regularly evaluate and review the effectiveness and impact of your programs
  • Learn from your tracking systems and make changes and adjustments as necessary to ensure your activities are as effective as possible

Posted by Tiffany Applegate on October 30, 2012 at 3:11 PM
Categories: Board Governance | Outcomes/Results
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