A Little Mission Creep Can Be a Good Thing

Conventional wisdom tells us that “mission creep” dilutes focus and impact, and ultimately limits funder effectiveness. And in general, the more we feel in control of our funding, so too we feel that we know why and what to expect from our funding. The more focused we are, the more likely it is that we trust the data and evidence we gather from our reports, site visits, and systematic evaluations.

The strength of a laser-focused mission becomes evident when external factors force hard decisions. The Great Recession forced lots of us to take a good hard look at all of our grantees. How did we end up with such a mixed bag? Our so-called priorities had become a very porous barrier to funding entry. Of course, during the go-go years, when our assets were growing at a fast clip, what did we have to lose? Sure those projects didn’t fit exactly, but our regular grantees didn’t suffer. But, suddenly the money wasn’t there. Suddenly all those mission and priority statements and guidelines came into play. As the money started coming back, many of us, burned, worked hard at maintaining the discipline.

At the same time, impact philanthropy became the abiding mantra of the moment. If it means anything, it means bang for the philanthropic buck. Evidence, data, and systematic review all are essential tools in the impact toolbox. Once we see our decisions being driven by impact outcomes, it is hard to ignore the significance of this information in decision making. Many funders pride themselves on their strict evidence-based approach.

Even if these factors are not the driving force in our decision making, having a clearly articulated set of guidelines certainly makes our work a lot easier. If we are only reactive to requests, it is frustrating to have to say no to the many valid requests without second guessing ourselves! Not to mention dealing with board and family members constantly lobbying for personal priorities… Getting all that out of the way before the inevitable flood of requests makes sorting through the docket much easier.

There are lots of practical and conceptual reasons to resist mission creep. So then, why then am I saying that sometimes a little mission creep is a smart move?

1. Evidence-based grantmaking ultimately works against innovation.

After all, by definition innovation means “new” and evidence means that there is history. There are too many examples of some of the most interesting problem solving coming from risk tolerant grantmaking that would never have made the cut if evidence was an absolute condition.

2. Evidence-based grantmaking can lead to a tendency to believe that we are omniscient.

But sometimes out of the box thinking comes from surprising and unexpected places. If we are too rigid in defining what fits, we may be missing really interesting things.

3. All funders and foundations need to leave space for change and growth.

Even highly sophisticated and experienced funders can get in a rut. By leaving space for the periodic “mission creep,” funders can test out whether our well-trodden path has become too worn, too passé, or too easy. By going outside of our comfort zone, we may find that it is time to adjust, rethink, re-direct …or stay the course!

4. Sometimes there really are exigencies that deserve an “exception.”

For some, it may be keeping fragile nonprofits afloat as government funding dries up. For others, it may be a natural or human-caused disaster. For still others, it may be a funder collaborative with real potential. Surely you can add to this list!

Of course, I am not advocating that we adopt a new anarchic approach, throwing our carefully honed priorities and guidelines away. I am advocating that we be careful about the conventional wisdom of pure evidence-based grant making and of overly rigid long term decision-making strategy. Properly used, a little mission creep may keep us more agile and responsive without jeopardizing our hard won discipline.