It’s undeniable that New York’s nonprofits are paragons of impact, wielding a diverse array of initiatives that range from feeding the hungry and sheltering homeless people to championing human rights and civil liberties. These organizations boast a wealth of expertise and are driven by a dedicated and skilled workforce that serves as the backbone of their efforts.
Still, even the hardest-working nonprofits are vulnerable to the same pitfalls that affect all organizations, such as programs and services that drift from the overarching mission.
While it may seem obvious that a nonprofit’s mission remains its most important facet, it is surprisingly easy for an organization’s programs and services to stray from its guiding principle. Various factors can contribute to this loss of focus, such as shifts in state-level policies and regulations, which can provoke sudden changes in an organization’s approach and potentially lead it away from its original mission. Funding challenges can also present obstacles: A shortfall in contributions or reduction in grant opportunities may require an organization to double down on targeted fundraising, lessening focus on core programs and services. Mission creep is another common problem: that is, when an organization’s goals become too ambitious and diverse to map back to the original mission meaningfully. Many nonprofits jump at the opportunity to diversify and expand their work because it's a chance to do more good in the world. But if a new program or service isn't mission-aligned, it may ultimately diminish an organization's impact.
A loss of focus can have clear consequences. Misaligned programs and services might not effectively address the needs of a nonprofit’s constituency. Loss of focus may also alienate donors as they lose interest in supporting an organization that no longer reflects their original ideals. Operationally, decision-making can also become difficult due to clashing priorities. In dense cities like New York, nonprofits can become vulnerable to heightened competition when trying to develop a new audience or build new services.
On the other hand, when a nonprofit stays true to its mission, it can have an outstanding impact on its community. Look no further than City Harvest, a New York nonprofit that rescues surplus food and redistributes it to those who need it most. Their core mission is mitigating hunger, and as they have expanded their programs and services, they've stayed true to that mission. This commitment is evident in their introduction of nutrition education classes and strategic partnerships with local farmers. Girls Write Now is another excellent example. The nonprofit’s core mission is mentorship and creative writing, and that thread is still visible in their newer work, which includes college preparation workshops and career guidance.
So, how can nonprofits in New York ensure that the critical work they do remains mission-aligned?
Evaluate your existing mission, programs and services. Clarity surrounding the nonprofit’s mission should permeate the entire organization, from the executive director to the most junior staff member. To achieve this, it is crucial to develop a succinct mission statement that details the nonprofit’s purpose, the issues it aims to address and the strategies it employs for its resolution. Following this, creating specific criteria that align with and embody this overarching mission becomes essential. This can include establishing organizational values, best practices, target audiences and organizational sustainability. With this high-level picture, it's time to do a more granular assessment of programs and services, evaluating the degree to which each aligns with the mission and associated criteria. This study must be a comprehensive and data-driven endeavor that actively involves not only the immediate staff but also board members and other key stakeholders.
Retool misaligned programs and services. When a nonprofit evaluates and audits their operations, it's nearly inevitable that it will uncover some programs and services that deviate from its mission. Organizations need not completely eliminate this work; instead, they should focus on identifying specific aspects that require reframing or restructuring to realign their efforts. For instance, recalibrating a program’s activities or updating a service’s delivery model can be effective steps for realigning programs. Subsequently, it is vital to closely monitor the progress and outcomes of the retooled program or service to ensure successful realignment.
Vet new programs and services. Using your existing mission and successful programs and services, develop a rubric for evaluating any additional work streams your nonprofit may take on. Ask questions like: What are the risks and benefits of this new work? Are there any conflicts with the organization's core values? And, is there a genuine need for this work in the community?
New York's nonprofits play a crucial role in our community fabric. Those in leadership positions should prioritize ensuring that their programs and services are thoroughly aligned with their organization's mission – countless New Yorkers are depending on it.
Allison Quigney is a principal at Public Works Partners, LLC, a WBE/DBE/SBE certified planning and consulting firm specializing in multi-stakeholder initiatives and building strong connections across the nonprofit, government, and private sectors. For more information, visit www.publicworkspartners.com.