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According to Inc.com, the Massachusetts Bay colony formed Harvard College to “prepare ministers of upright character” for service as clergymen in a variety of churches—from congregational to unitarian. There’s no doubt that Harvard ranks as one the world’s premier universities; it’s also clear that Harvard no longer exists to fulfill the mission of training ministers that will prevent an “illiterate ministry to the churches when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”

Mission Creep

Military historians and experts coined the term mission creep to describe military operations that started with one purpose, but drifted to another—think Korean War. The war started to protect southern Korea from invasion from the north; however, the mission crept from protecting the south to re-uniting the Korean peninsula. Of course, the existence of North and South Korea remind us that the mission crept to failure.

Today, mission creep describes any organization or policy that gradually creeps in a new direction—often fueled by a perceived opportunity or crisis.

Nonprofit boards, including church boards, have certain fiduciary duties to the nonprofit corporation, including the duty of obedience. While traditional for-profit corporations generally exist to maximize profit for stockholders, nonprofit corporations exist for a particular purpose. The fiduciary duty of obedience demands that board members ensure that the nonprofit:

     1)   Follows all applicable laws;
     2)   Adheres to its own bylaws; and
     3)   Remains loyal to its stated mission.

Mission creep occurs when nonprofit corporations, including churches,
gradually drift from their stated mission and purpose—either abandoning the stated mission altogether or so cluttering the mission that it becomes unclear why the nonprofit exists. Today, many churches engage in innovative and non-traditional ministries—opening coffee shops, producing theatrical productions, partnering with for-profit corporations, engaging in expanded ministries of social justice, opening pre-schools and schools—in the midst of all of that incredible ministry, there is a risk that a church’s mission may creep. The same is true of all types of nonprofits, who because of opportunity or crisis, start drifting from the stated mission.

The danger is that the real purpose of the nonprofit gets lost or abandoned as the mission creeps in a new direction. To be clear, mission creep and strategic decision-making are not the same. A nonprofit may certainly make a decision to expand its mission or transform its mission completely. That’s not the same as mission creep—which is often subtle, unnoticed, and takes place over a period of time.

The Board’s Duty

In a nonprofit corporation, it is the duty of the Board of Directors to prevent mission creep. To fulfill the duty of obedience and avoid mission creep, a nonprofit board can install the following three (3) safeguards.

1.   Review the Mission Statement Regularly.

Before the Board can ever prevent mission creep, the mission must be clearly understood. To do that, the Board may look at the Articles of Incorporation, bylaws, and other corporate documents (including strategic plan). If there is no clear mission statement, the Board should adopt a statement that is focused, memorable, and clearly identifies why the organization exists.

2.   Ensure that Goals and Budgets are Aligned with the Mission.

To assure the mission is being followed, the Board needs to make sure the organization’s goals are aligned with the mission by asking a simple question: If we meet these goals, will we be closer to fulfilling our mission. If the board does not have goals, then the Board’s next step is to develop a series of goals that when fulfilled make the mission more of a reality.

The budget is made up of more than numbers; the nonprofit’s budget reveals its priorities. As the Board approves the annul budget, it’s provided with another opportunity to sync the organization with its mission.

3.   Learn to Say No.

After the allied forces ejected Saddam Hussien from Kuwait though Operation: Desert Storm, the fervor to take Baghdad escalated exponentially; however, President George H. W. Bush simply said, “No.” That wasn’t the mission of Desert Storm; that wasn’t what the allies came together to do. Bush refused to let the mission of ejecting Iraq from Kuwait creep to overtaking Iraq.

The president knew how to say no.

There are times when Board members have to do the same—say no to great opportunities that are clearly not a part of the nonprofit’s mission.

If you would like more information about how Reynolds Law Group, PLLC can help train your nonprofit’s board in its responsibilities call 757.219.2500 or send us an email to grant@reynoldslawgroup.net to set up an appointment.