The Mission Myth

It’s a story that all of us in this business have either told or been told countless times. I was working for a for-profit company…was disheartened by the constant focus on the bottom line…decided to leave the corporate world behind so I could, to put is simply, do good.

We join nonprofits because of the mission. We love them for the same reason. We immerse ourselves in them, pour our time, efforts and tears into them, all because of the mission.  Put simply, we want to do good and we want to feel good. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The mission drives you. It’s the reason your organization exists, the reason people join it, staff it, volunteer for it and give to it. Yet it is not the reason an organization succeeds.

Oftentimes nonprofit staff and board members believe that if they just put everything they have into the mission, then the rest of it…the successes and the money and the admiration and the impact will all follow. Wrong. This is what I call the Mission Myth.

When we focus solely on the mission we are doing good, but we are not doing good well.

The truth is that the things that drove many of us away from the for-profit sector are precisely the critical factors that determine a nonprofit organization’s success. I call them the 4Ms: Management, Money, Marketing and Measurement. These are not sexy principles, but in the end they are just as important, and in some cases more important, than the mission in determining whether or not a nonprofit organization is successful. It’s not good enough to simply do the mission. You must carry it out effectively, efficiently, and with the highest standards of excellence. Why would you ever settle for anything less?

It may be the mission that drives you, but it’s the business that that drives you to success.

This isn’t usually how people think when they first enter the nonprofit sector. Individuals don’t become staff members at nonprofit organizations because they care about policies and procedures. They don’t join boards because they care about governance. In the beginning, when they puff up their chests and know that their altruistic spirit is about to descend on an unsuspecting nonprofit, they don’t think about accounting. Or liability insurance. Or office space.  They want to do good and they want to feel good.

Whether the mundane details of day-to-day operations or the somewhat intimidating topics of accrual accounting or strategic planning, there are plenty of organizational components that do not inspire passion. As a result it becomes all too tempting to disregard everything else but the mission itself, to sacrifice capacity building or staff reviews or information technology in order to deliver another home-cooked meal or give a speech about environmental sustainability or bring in another well-known theater production that will enhance the culture of the community.

These temptations are seemingly wonderful for the nonprofit, but if they take away from the critical elements of organizational performance they must be resisted. While they may seem like the exact things you should focus on, the fact is they could be distracting you away from successfully running your organization. Ironically, more mission can sometimes be bad for your organization.

Focusing on the mission means you’re doing good. When you take the mission and successfully integrate it with the 4Ms, that is when you do good well. The 4Ms must all be taken seriously, must all be a focus, must all be integrated into the nonprofit. Strategic plans, fundraising and marketing strategies, policies and procedures, personnel and board development…each strengthens an organization at its core. The nonprofit must have systems in place to ensure consistency and sustainability, no matter who is on the board and staff at the moment and no matter the current economic picture.  The infrastructure must work. The books must balance. Computers can’t crash and sinks can’t leak. From the role of the board chair to the staff member who locks the door at night, the organization needs to be mindful, be thoughtful and be intentional about the needs of the business and each function within it.

A successful nonprofit does not run arbitrarily. It runs with a constant and diligent eye to the goals it strives to reach, continually searching for ways to serve more people more effectively, ensuring dollars are spent with the greatest of integrity and the highest of impact. This does not happen by chance. In order to make everything you do as meaningful as possible you must plan for it. You must create goals that reflect not just what you’re working on, but what you’re working toward. You must know who is doing each task, how they are doing it, and how you will know if they’ve been successful. If you do not manage the organization well, find the money to pay for it, market it to the right audience to build investment in it and measure impact to prove its worth over others, the best- case scenario is that you are not doing the mission as effectively as you could be. The worst case scenario is you are setting your organization up for failure.

Those who have run an organization or who serve in an administrative capacity of some kind know that these words are true, that while it was the mission that got them in the door, the truth is they don’t have the luxury to even think about the mission regularly. Sure, they integrate it into their work. They sell it. They market it. They collect data about it. But they don’t live it as part of their day-to-day tasks. And that’s okay. Because to focus on the mission only is to do good without doing good well. Those you serve deserve better.

Management. Money. Marketing. Measurement.

The 4Ms must be a part of the plan if you want to find true success.

Focusing on mission alone will not get you there.

For more on the Mission Myth and further articles exploring each of the 4Ms (coming soon), go to


Deirdre Maloney is the principal of Momentum San Diego, created to enhance the work of nonprofit and for-profit organizations alike through a combination of services in each area of the 4Ms. Deirdre comes by her expertise honestly, having served as the executive of a multi-million dollar nonprofit organization, a board member, a media specialist, marketing director, technical writer and broadcast news producer.





3 responses to “The Mission Myth”

  1. Renee Herrell Avatar

    Great post! You are dead on about the need for the 4 “M’s” — all nonprofits need to focus on them.

  2. Nicole Knox Avatar

    Loved this – it is SO very true! Making a shift from corporate to nonprofit never equates to less strategy or focus on the core components of your organization. So glad you’re reminding people of that critical fact!

  3. Emily Davis Avatar

    I think this is incredibly true – nonprofits as a business is something that Robert Egger talks a lot about in the V3 Campaign. Often as the life cycle of an organization evolves the organization slowly starts to understand the importance of the 4 Ms, but imagine the impact we could have and the missions that we could serve if we made the policies, procedures, financials, and governance the sexy part of nonprofits. I think they are so sexy and I know I am not the only one out there!

    One of my mentors always said to hire your weakness. So if you are a nonprofit founder out there with a passion for the mission and organization’s programs, but don’t understand the art of governance or financial management – hire someone who does. Hire the people who will help fill those needs and ultimately help you serve your mission, your programs, and your stakeholders.

    The 4 Ms can only be achieved with the right, diversified leadership all coming with their own sets of strengths to advance the mission through their business expertise.

    Thanks for the great post, Deirdre!