One board member of a regional organization dedicated to providing guide dogs for the visually impaired suggested that the group branch out to include production of a healthy dog food product. Another board member said he heard of a new grant that would fund provision of other types of animals for people with a variety of emotional and mental health challenges.
Still another board member recommended that the nonprofit engage in a new business of selling merchandise related to dogs, including a newly designed mask with a canine theme design. This board member insisted that the new business would generate much needed revenue for the organization.
The CEO and Board Chair called a meeting of the Executive Committee to discuss and address all of these suggestions. Thankfully, the committee recommended an evaluation of the nonprofit’s mission and vision so they would avoid getting too carried away with these new ideas.
One committee member pointed out the dangers and pitfalls of mission drift. “It’s good that so many of our board members are thinking of new ideas,” said the committee member. “But we must remember why our nonprofit exists, who we are serving, what our constituents want and what we are tasked to do to achieve our goals.”
Mission drift can happen to the best of us.
According to the popular nonprofit resource, BoardSource, “Mission drift is a condition in which an organization becomes so consumed with its internal issues that it loses sight of its mission.” Mission drift can also occur when a nonprofit pursues grant opportunities that are outside of their scope of practice or engage in new programs that do not fall within their mission parameters. Basically, this malady occurs when a board loses focus on its primary mission. Some symptoms of this difficulty include:
- An approach to organizational priorities that ignores the needs of constituencies and changes in the marketplace
- Initiatives that go beyond the normal scope of the organization’s activities
- A lack of strategic focus as a regular element of board meetings
- Staff or board members expressing concern that the organization is diverting from its core purpose
Regular evaluation of your mission and vision will keep your nonprofit on track.
Some people feel that, once established, a mission should not be tampered with or changed. They feel that the mission is akin to the soul of the organization and defines its very existence. This is partially true. However, ensuring that the mission continues to reflect the needs of the constituents can only be accomplished by regularly checking in with board and staff members.
Board members are connected to the larger community and, therefore, bring a valuable perspective to evaluating the need of the organization. Staff members are the ones who implement the mission and, as such, bring a very practical viewpoint to the discussion. Don’t forget about community members and stakeholders.
They can provide a broader assessment of the community’s needs as well as a high-level opinion about potential changes that would strengthen the organization. A regular review of your mission offers a good opportunity for everyone to recommit to the organization’s fundamental purpose.
You can incorporate this evaluation into one of your board planning retreats or you can appoint a task force comprised of members of the board, staff and community. This process can be as formal or informal as you wish. The important thing is to be intentional about the endeavor.
Be sure to include the vision in your process. Your vision is your dream. It is an enticing idea of what could happen to the community you serve, to the issue you address and to the organization itself if all your ideas were implemented and all your dreams came true. The vision inspires action: planning, fundraising, marketing, good governance and sound management. Your vision is the future you hope to create.
Management experts advise conducting a continual evaluation throughout the year.
Peter Drucker, the famous late management guru, advises that nonprofit boards regularly ask themselves the following five questions to keep your organization sharp and ensure it is meeting real needs:
- What is our mission
- Who is our customer
- What does our customer value
- What are our results
- What is our plan
Additional components of board governance are important to consider.
Ensuring that the organization is being faithful to its mission and that the mission is relevant to the changing need is probably the most important duty of a board. The board’s governance role also includes other important elements.
An important part of governance is taking care of the board’s own long-term health by continuously cultivating, recruiting and training new board members. Be sure your board has a clear plan for choosing your board members. Many nonprofits create a matrix to describe the talents and expertise to look for in their board members. It is also good to have a clear cultivation and recruitment protocol so that everyone knows what to expect when inviting someone to join the board.
Another critical component of governance is your bylaws. Bylaws need to be up-to-date, and you must be following them. If you don’t know what your bylaws say or if you aren’t following them, you might as well not have them. At least that is how the courts look at it. Be sure your bylaws have been reviewed by an attorney every few years. A board committee should evaluate your bylaws from time to time to make any necessary changes and to keep them fresh in everyone’s mind.
A board with good governance practices will have written policies, standards and procedures in place to address all key aspects of your nonprofit. Policies such as whistleblower, conflict of interest and gift acceptance are just a few of the documents that should be in your files. And just like the bylaws, it’s important to review the policies, standards and procedures occasionally to make sure they are being followed.
And finally, under the heading of governance, we have the very important board role of hiring, supporting and evaluating the Chief Executive. The Executive Director is the board’s one and only employee and main partner in doing the work of the organization. So, it’s important that nonprofits conduct a thorough search for their candidate, hire well, support the individual to help them do their best job and provide a written performance evaluation every year.
This evaluation should be a two-way conversation between the board and CEO in order to strengthen the partnership and create a winning team. Mutual trust and respect as well as clear and consistent communication will keep you on track.
There are three legal responsibilities of all nonprofit boards.
>>The Duty of Care says that all board members should have sufficient competence to participate in the governing board. It also says that each board member must exercise reasonable care (“the care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances”). Board members must remember that they are stewards of the nonprofit and make decisions accordingly.
>>The Duty of Loyalty is a standard of faithfulness; a board member must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization. This means that a board member can never use information obtained as a member for personal gain but must act in the best interests of the organization.
>>The Duty of Obedience requires board members to be faithful to the organization’s mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals of the organization. A basis for this rule lies in the public’s trust that the organization will manage donated funds to fulfill the organization’s mission.