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Optimization or Mission Drift?

The Question

How do nonprofit managers strive for optimization, stay true to the organization’s mission and avoid being misunderstood in the process?

Third sector organizations (e.g. nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits) serve their communities and constituencies increasingly in cooperation with the government and private sector actors. A simple, practical framework can assist nonprofits in optimizing resource deployment in a manner consistent with their mission while aligning with funding sources important to sustainable service. Moreover, such a framework aids grounding in core values while employing innovation and thinking beyond artificial boundaries. It serves responding to the question in a manner that provides for optimization, staying true to values and transparent communication.

 

Context of the Question

In a mid-June meeting with the central bank of Sierra Leone, government officials expressed concerns that international nongovernmental organizations were not committed to the country. The officials believed many were only following after foreign aid donors to align with donor funding priorities. Several years earlier an executive of a highly recognized nongovernmental organization (NGO) in southern Sierra Leone characterized such organizations as “mushrooms” and “handbags.” This was to highlight their temporary, mobile characteristic.

A recently appointed program director for the world’s largest development NGO discussed program funding challenges. She recounted her intense efforts at assembling diverse funding proposals. The goal was to underwrite employing the NGO’s mechanism as a response to Sierra Leone’s health concerns in a manner that aligned with donor priorities.

The reference to Sierra Leone conversations illustrate how the question has global implications. The question is as relevant elsewhere as it is in the United States.

 

Resource Inventory

The first component of the framework is a detailed inventory and assessment of endowments and resources. Hosanna House, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania is a multi-faced nonprofit servicing children, youth, adults and families. The programs range from a nationally accredited school readiness initiative to housing for previously homeless people and health services. Integral to providing these services over the years have been contracts and relationships with both the private sector and governments.

Hosanna House has a vital endowed asset: its 26,000 square foot facility. The former high school was vacant for years. Work and commitment involving the community and donors converted the dilapidated building into a stunning resource. It is a central component of the organization’s innovative approach to community service. Staff, supporters and organizational partners are all important considerations when nonprofit management inventories the capacity and supplies available for optimization.

 

Connect Experience and Extant Efforts

The second component of the framework connects experience with extant efforts. Maintain records of previous efforts that demonstrate commitment to core values as expressed in the organization’s mission and vision. For instance, the Savannah Historic Foundation produced a fantastic 15-minute DVD. The DVD illustrates the organization’s continuous commitment to preserve historic buildings in Savannah, Georgia.

Such a device aids in connecting a history of mission-driven activity to innovative services. Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, for example, went beyond its arts focus in youth development to build a 38,000 square foot greenhouse to grow orchids and hydroponic tomatoes. The youth initiative uses the greenhouse device to inspire students to study horticulture in college. Connecting new, unusual programs to a history of consistent services helps in two ways. First, it helps constrain mission drift by grounding activities in core values during the idea assessment process. Second, it is instrumental when communicating a message of commitment and innovation to stakeholders.

 

Carver Creativity Construct

The final component of the framework requires employing a Carver creativity construct. It has been said George Washington Carver found approximately 300 hundred uses for a limited list of agricultural products, topped by the peanut. Deriving a list as diverse as insecticide, lotion, dyes, quinine, and peanut butter seems almost unimaginable to most people. Governments and for-profit firms continue to dedicate resources to respond to needs of society and markets. Nonprofit management should remove boundaries and constraints to explore ways their organization aligns with these perceived needs. Sustainably optimizing nonprofit resources mandates new and varied ways of resource deployment to withstand funding volatility.

 

Conclusion

The ebb and flow of public service priorities necessitates that nonprofit managers continually consider questions of economic sustainability. Optimizing organizational endowments and resources is integral to sustainability. Similarly, staying connected to the core values of mission and vision are vital to identity, integrity, and credibility – hallmarks of the third sector. Finally, demonstrating and maintaining a record of commitment to core values is important. That record can be connected to new, innovative ideas to help constrain mission-drift and related stakeholder concerns. Abandonment of mission and vision often seems to be an easy, appropriate explanation offered by nonprofit skeptics when the organizations explore innovative, unconventional approaches to sustainably advance their mission. Nonprofit managers can use this simple framework to offer an alternate explanation of linkages between innovation and mission-advancing resource optimization.

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Author: David A. Bell; PhD, MPA ; is an assistant professor of public administration and MPA program coordinator at Savannah State University. He has served over 30 years in management at varity of nonprofit organizations.

 

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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