The Risk of Mission Creep for Nonprofits

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In a twist of linguistic irony, the application of the term “mission creep” has gradually expanded from its origins in discussions of war to be used in a broad range of organizational settings. The term refers to a gradual change in an organization’s goals over the course of time, with unwanted side effects. In war, mission creep is often blamed for prolonging conflicts. For nonprofits it can have a remarkably similar effect.

In the nonprofit world, mission creep should be understood as an unplanned or unofficial shift in organizational goals. The nonprofit’s formal mission, as set out in its governance documents, can always be changed through appropriate procedures. Perhaps the mission statement as it stands is flexible enough to allow managers and directors to explore new opportunities without risking mission creep.

Mission creep arises when an organization expands into new areas without taking full stock of how the new goals fit into the broader organizational plan. It could happen in response to a new opportunity that managers embrace without conducting a full analysis. It could also happen in response to a problem, where quick decisions lead the organization to take on work that it hadn’t planned for.

What sort of problems can mission creep cause?

  • Unplanned obligations. Once the nonprofit has agreed to take on a new project, it may not be able to back out. One of the more serious consequences of mission creep can be an obligation on the part of the organization to devote resources to projects that are not accounted for in existing budgets and staffing plans.
  • Damage to the organization’s reputation. A nonprofit’s constituents typically expect the organization to be consistent about its practices. When mission creep drives the organization into new and unexpected activities it can hurt its image among donors, volunteers, and even other organizations.
  • Breach of mission. When mission creep spills outside the contours of the nonprofit’s official goals, it can create conflicts with governance documents and other formal promises made by the organization. In the worst case, the official mission will need to be amended to account for the creep. Needless to say, it’s hardly ideal to be forced to make changes like this.

If your nonprofit is grappling with how to rein in mission creep, the Church Law Center of California may be able to help. We provide counsel on governance matters to religious and secular nonprofits. Call us today at (949) 892-1221 or through our contact page.

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