What Exactly is a Mission Driven Organization Anyways?

I know that I throw around the term “mission driven organization” with a seeming reckless abandon. The expression mission driven is too frequently used without context and in a wildly wide range of scenarios… so much so that it has lost its meaning and impact. I myself consult to mission driven organizations and, if pressed, I would be happy to define what I mean by that. In fact, I’ve done so several times. But one of the things I’ve learned through the years is that my definition doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the organization doing that work feels compelled and bound by its sense of mission and whether that mission will guide its actions and decisions even when they run counter to other motivations, such as profitability and recognition. If the identity and work of that organization consistently propels them through conflict, challenge, and uncertainty, then that organization is mission driven.

There are two questions I like to pose to boards and leadership teams as they contemplate their future and which help to either pressure test or, in some cases, respectfully dismantle unhelpful beliefs about mission. What’s an unhelpful mission belief? There are many.

Example 1: “Everything we do is mission driven.”

Example 2: “We are the only ones who can accomplish this mission.”

Example 3: “If something is in support of our mission, we have to keep at it and invest in it no matter what.”

I like to ask organizational leaders these questions:

  1. Can you rank order your programs (or services, divisions, products, etc.) from most to least mission impactful?

    By focusing on relative impact, participants in such an exercise can let go of the “it is” or “it isn’t” distinction. Once there is a relativity factor in play, it becomes much easier to objectively discuss these programs, etc. along a mission dimension. Such discussions can reveal interesting elephants in the room and other motivators, such as self-interest and conflict avoidance.
  2. If your organization can no longer offer a specific program, etc., what would happen to those served by it?

    Honest, self-reflective, and external environment aware groups will frequently identify alternatives. This is useful in situations when funding challenges or resource constraints require difficult decision making. Better boards and senior teams will get past emotional and historical attachments and make those critical and necessary decisions.

It’s trite, unrealistic, and dishonest to say that good organizations never cut programs or staff. I would say that such decisions are actually the primary responsibility of those who govern and lead these organizations. All too often, I see organizations that avoid making such decisions… to the eventual detriment of the entire organization. And to those who depend upon them.

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