What is Mission Creep and Why Does it Matter?

by | Mar 20, 2023 | Strategic Planning

“Mission creep” or “mission drift” are two terms that have long plagued the nonprofit sector. So what exactly is the dreaded mission creep?

Mission creep happens when leaders lose focus and allow an organization to move away from its intended purpose. Imagine mission creep as an ocean’s undercurrent, shifting, pushing, and moving organizations away from their base—often without them noticing.

Ideally, an organization’s vision and mission should guide both overall strategy and day-to-day decision-making. When this connection breaks down—such as through mission creep—an organization can lose its way. As we’ll get to later in this article, one tool that can help tackle mission creep is strategic planning.

Read more: A Complete Guide to Nonprofit Strategic Planning


Mission Creep in Action

It’s not often that we get to see the consequences of mission creep from the outside. Usually, it’s an internal struggle in organizations. But the turmoil across the tech sector in 2022 and 2023 provides an unexpected example of mission creep in action.

Layoffs in the tech sector have grabbed headlines. Forbes even launched a “Layoff Tracker.” Among the many reasons for staff reductions at tech companies—such as economic uncertainty and changing market conditions—there’s also the factor of mission creep. According to a Bloomberg analysis:

During the tech sector’s pandemic-era boom, employee headcount became one of the reigning barometers of success. Quarter after quarter, alongside traditional metrics like revenue growth and operating margin, companies across Silicon Valley reported to analysts and investors the thousands of workers they had added to their ballooning payrolls.

Growth for its own sake can be a particularly insidious form of mission creep.

In any sector, it’s easy for leaders to get caught up in the drive for growth. A growing organization, we assume, is a thriving organization. The temptation can be especially fraught for nonprofits. It seems like funders are always asking for nonprofits to show greater and greater impact. In the case of Meta and other tech companies, it seems this form of mission creep went unrecognized for far too long, ultimately leading to a management crisis.

Growth should always be in service to, rather than a distraction from, an organization’s mission.


The Potential Consequences

There are many potential consequences of mission creep for nonprofits:

  • Underfunded programs and projects that fail to reach stated goals.
  • Staff stretched too thin, leading to burnout and increased turnover.
  • Increasing conflict between staff, board, and other stakeholders.
  • Persistent underfunding of operations and infrastructure like HR and legal, which can lead to expensive problems down the road.
  • Reduced organizational impact, because leaders are distracted and resources are not allocated strategically.
  • Funding challenges overall, as funders and partners struggle to understand an organization’s work and impact.

Read more: What Happens When Nonprofit Business Plans Stray from an Organization’s Mission?


Is Mission Creep Always Bad?

While it’s easy to look at the potential consequences of mission creep and declare that it’s clearly a harmful phenomenon, that’s not always the case. When managed intentionally, expanding into different program areas or approaches can be a positive. For example, new community needs may arise—and your organization might be the first, or only, group to recognize and fill the gap.

The key is that work outside an organization’s core mission needs to be intentional, strategic and regularly assessed. That means proactive decision-making that involves key stakeholders to ensure everyone understands the goals of new initiatives and the needs they address.


Using Strategic Planning to Reassess Mission Creep

One of the best tools to tackle mission creep is strategic planning. That’s because strategic planning is all about aligning organizational stakeholders around a shared vision for the future.

The first steps in the strategic planning process include:

  • Assessing your organization’s internal strengths and weaknesses. Working with a strategic planning consultant, leaders are encouraged to map the full scope of what their organization does, including the effectiveness of different projects and programs. This is where you may identify initiatives that represent mission creep—and assess the kind of impact they’re having (internally and externally).
  • Revisiting vision and mission statements to ensure they accurately reflect the change your organization is trying to achieve. Here, you can assess which “mission creep” initiatives may be vital to your organization’s future vision—and which are simply too far outside of scope.

Even if your organization isn’t dealing with mission creep today, a strategic plan can prepare you to avoid it in the future by using strategic decision-making.

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