Right on the Money: Preventing ‘Mission Drift’

Photo of two men pointing in opposite directions.

When Huckleberry Youth Programs in San Francisco lost state funding for a mental health program for youth in crisis, the organization’s first reaction was panic. The group’s leaders felt they needed to save the program at any cost, even though it was serving fewer and fewer teens.

“Instead of evaluating why the program was not useful to a broader range of clients in need, HYP patched together different streams of funding to keep paying the therapist and supporting the small number of clients still using the program,” says Bruce Rice, Huckleberry’s fiscal director.

The financial scramble led to a realization: Supporting the dwindling program at the expense of other programs was not in line with the organization’s mission to fully support underserved youth. In the end, Huckleberry cut the program.

Rice calls what happened “mission drift,” a situation in which a charity strays from its fundamental purpose. Any nonprofit responding to a budget crisis, deciding whether to cut or keep a troubled program, or launching a new initiative can face the possibility of mission drift. Each of these situations requires youth-serving agencies to ponder two basic questions: “Who are our clients and how can we best serve them?”

Recognizing mission drift is the first step to avoiding it. In addition, Rice has the following advice:

“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.

“During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, there was nothing in HYP’s mission at the time about adolescent HIV prevention, a rising need in the community,” he says. Huckleberry hired a residential counselor who was HIV positive and used a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant to open an HIV clinic and peer education program for teens.

Right on the Money is an ongoing series about how to keep the doors of nonprofit organizations open in good times and bad. If there's a topic you'd like us to address here, please e-mail us.

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