It's not only the impact of COVID 19 that finds me sticking close to home these days. No longer on the road week after week, my status as an elder finds me traveling in my head, other than the daily delight of walking our dogs among the redwoods that surround our abode. Rather than packing up the tripod-held newsprint notes used to guide the workshops I loved to conduct, the ones filled with people looking for ways to improve their grant seeking, I now get to ruminate about how it goes for the grassroots nonprofits from which those folks spring.
And to recall a couple of subjects about which I griped then and seem no less aggravating now. That I bother to return to them reflects my abiding conviction that, in these increasingly tempestuous days and those to follow, the efforts that emerge when people are gathered together in not-for-profit groups to improve the quality of life in local communities will be as essential as ever they were. Perhaps even more.
The first of these — admittedly less significant, but it still sticks in my craw — is my insistence that, in spite of its pervasive use there is no such thing as a so-called grantwriter, or the practice of grantwriting. You don't write grants; you write proposals to GET grants. So the term that makes good literal sense is grant proposal writer, but it's obviously succumbed to the need for jargon that keeps popping up in our sector. And, I might as well be barking at the moon, because social media is rife with both terms, and there's what amounts to a cottage industry of grantwriting operatives.
Nonetheless, I remain convinced that this amounts to slop that reflects poorly on our sector. Doesn't seem necessary. More rigor in using our terminology does.
More important, I remain devoted to the multifaceted skills buried by the term grantwriter. Someone who seeks to build nonprofit assets, as my book puts it is a "convener, communicator, facilitator, researcher, writer - these attributes make it possible to visualize an appropriately dense definition of the craft of those who make resource development their business, sweeping aside the ludicrous concept of the grantwriter while also going beyond a singular focus on grants."
(Let me add that I attribute this rectitude to my years as a trainer for The Grantsmanship Center where I learned to appreciate the value of precision in developing funding proposals.)
As for the second of my gripes, I just read another intriguing piece from Vu Le, this time about about mission creep, https://nonprofitaf.com/2021/08/we-need-to-rethink-the-concept-of-mission-creep/#more-7397 The effect was to impel me to get out of my head and once more challenge the nonprofit community to deal with what I consider a flagrant flaw, mission creep aside, the profusion of misdirected mission statements.
I started waking up to the persistence of such a phenomenon years ago when conducting those resource development workshops among people in nonprofits, mixed in with my work for several grant making foundations. I realized that time and again the people with whom I was working would, as my book puts it, attempt to convince others to support their organizations because they ran excellent programs. To quote from the book again: "As reasonable as this might appear, there is a damning corollary that accompanies such an approach. Rather than focusing on the people for whom our organization was created in the first place, we emphasize an array of proposed activities. A mania for process, emblematic of a busy organization, replaces a proper concern for the quality of people's lives, the marker of a legitimate organization."
I go on mention that nonprofits are often described as public benefit organizations, so the only legitimate mission for such outfits is their "version of the public benefit of helping people to improve the quality of their lives. Period."
But against this standard, what we get over and over again is some variation of describing the activities of an organization as its mission. Take a look at three real life examples.
Our mission is to provide effective educational and supportive services to maximize the strengths of individuals and build resilient communities.
Our mission is to build local collaborations to support local arts organizations.
Our mission is to offer people effective ways to engage in advancing the well being of our communities.
Notice that each organization emphasizes what it does — to provide, to build, to offer — prior to referring to the ostensible payoff. What an organization proposes to do predominates the importance of why it does so in the first place. The effect is that being active is more important than being effective.
Let me borrow from one of the proposal development basics in my book to add to the line of reasoning I'm getting at here — and to reinforce the importance of turning these three mission statements around. From the section on developing program strategy: "...rather than attempting to define project activities from start to finish, use each outcome defining participant success as the starting point from which to develop your program tactics."
In other words, clarity about the payoff in human terms is the only basis by which to claim that an associated program makes sense in building a funding proposal. The same goes for crafting and owning a mission statement.
So, setting aside the virtue of precisely defining terms — "strengths," "thrive," "well being" — let's revisit the trio of mission statements in the same order, and take a stab at changing them. To emphasize, as we say in a certain mutual support group where I hang out, first things first. Here goes.
Our mission is to help individuals maximize their strengths and to contribute to building resilient communities by providing them with effective educational and supportive services.
Our mission is to help local arts organizations thrive as community resources by building local coalitions.
Our mission is to advance the well being of our communities by offering people effective ways to engage in this undertaking.
Why this transformation is fundamental and necessary becomes evident when you consider that the ultimate measure of a nonprofit's credibility doesn't rest on running good programs; rather it is that the folks for whom it exists in the first place succeed in improving the quality of their lives because of such programs. So, people precede programs.
Nonetheless, I continue to wonder why this profoundly simple and important distinction eludes so many of us, especially given the public benefit rubric mentioned previously. But, elude us it does, as the examples here(and multitudes more!) demonstrate. I'll speculate and share what comes to mind.
First, there's an abiding warmth about what strikes me as our service delivery mentality. Rather than examining and questioning why and how we do what we do in the public domain, we just want to keep plugging away. (A variation on the we've-always-done-it-this-way tale?) As we all know, even accounting for recent public health impacts, the day-to-day business of nonprofits evolves around active operatives, be they staff or volunteers, and there's an inherent comfort in framing an organization's story, for others to see, around their efforts.
To try to challenge this baseline, I would occasionally ask for permission to carry out a segment when conducting training workshops for nonprofit grant seekers. In this scenario, an overweening Funding Force exists with the power to determine whether a nonprofit should continue its work or not. A decision is made based on answering the question, why should your organization continue to receive funding and stay in business? More often than not, this resulted in thumbs down from the Force because people responded that their organizations should be funded to maintain their high quality programs. When subsequently discussing what we had done, I had the opportunity to indicate that the answer that would result in funding was the one that projected the benefits among the participants in those very fine programs.
The thing that's crazy-making about the seeming resistance to re-framing the way we operate and present our organizations is that doing this in no way diminishes the importance of our work that we constantly front and center. If, as seems apparent, we're of a mind to imagine that others agree with us that our programs stand out, think of what the reception would be were we to document that the reason for this is because the quality of life in our communities has improved in verifiable, tangible ways.
Next, it occurs to me that people in and around nonprofits (sub)consciously fear articulating mission statements that emphasize success among program participants because this will result in there being no need to continue operating. On the one hand, this makes sense -— who wants to lose a job? — on the other, it is ultimately debilitating — an organization keeping on irrespective of verifiable need to do so. Getting stale, as it were.
So, what about reframing this bleak scenario? The coda near the end of my book suggests as much.
"...keep the following perspective in mind. May you and yours succeed in accomplishing the mission that drew you together in the first place. That way you can regroup and reinvigorate your commitment to help other people help themselves secure a higher quality of life, secure in the knowledge that you just succeeded, and that there's bound to be more work to do."
Mission accomplished. Mission awaiting.
Let me finish up with a couple stories about organizations that get it.
I served on the board of our local health care clinic some years back. Board was given the opportunity to join administrative staff for a one-day training session aimed at looking inside our organization to be better informed for advocacy on its behalf. I took advantage of my participation to challenge the mission statement at the time, you guessed it, delivering high quality health care services. When a couple of participants began to challenge my challenge, I went on to suggest that all the very best health care services delivered would only be as admirable as they led to improved health among the beneficiaries as a result; that in fact the clinic's mission was to bring about optimal health in our coastal community. (Our consultant concurred.) See for yourself. Go beyond the initial COVID testing page. https://mendocinocoastclinics.org/
And then there's a wonderful new, wonderfully named nonprofit, Resiliency Village, underway in Sonora County, CA. That I would know of this program dates back to when I first met its executive director, Mark Dyken — he of the oft-defined activist band, Clan Dyken, and its annual run to deliver necessities to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona — in a training program for grant seekers I conducted in a neighboring foothill county.
Since then I have also come to know and respect another of the founders, Shelley Muniz, the author of an extraordinary book about the Navajo Supply Run, When The Creator Moves Me.(ISBN9781732869110) Let me leave it at this. When I became aware of what these two were up to, in cahoots with a bunch of other soulful originators, I also saw the original mission statement that described an array of interconnected services for people on the margins of healthy existence. We conversed, and my suggestion was adopted. See for yourself. https://resiliencyvillage.org/
That's about it for the moment, other than to say that I just got my copy of Simon Sinek's book, Start With Why. Seems as if we have something in common, since my own body of work and my very own mission statement continue to challenge nonprofits to demonstrate why they exist rather than what they do.