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The danger of “Mission Drift”

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

“Change before you have to.” Jack Welch

The generational handover of the sector — one not for profit organisation at a time — is well underway.  In one school association survey undertaken recently, 30% of Principal’s and Deputies indicated that they intended to be retiring in the next five years.  Take a look around any conference and you’ll see it!  An important but dangerously unnoticed difference between baby boomers and the Next generation is that they are strikingly different in “what they don’t know they don’t know.”

The baby boomer generation came from activist backgrounds of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and their organisations in a lot of cases grew out of movements in response to a missional call or activist response to a perceived need. They not only didn’t know how to manage, they first had to discover the concept and then why they should learn about it.  Over time, these movements have matured and developed in their management and expertise.

In contrast, today’s younger leaders are completely familiar with management, and mature systems and organisations reflect this. They know management.  But what don’t younger leaders know? They generally don’t how to build movements, to get 100 people to a rally, to make staff or an audience feel called to a cause or purpose greater than themselves. They don’t know they don’t know how to build movements, or why they should.

We believe that organisations will drift, if left unchallenged, moving through the following stages of organisational life:

If left unchecked, this natural organisational drift will continue to take our organisations further away from the movements they were born from, and increasingly move them toward becoming stagnant monuments that focus on tradition rather than mission.  Movements will decline and drift to management and will eventually drift on to become monuments – where the original core purpose, vision and mission are forgotten.

Through periods of change and through the passage of time organisations need to learn how to stay the same.  What we mean is this – in a healthy not for profit there should be an ongoing tension between movement and management in order to stop the drift in emphasis to management and monument, and refresh the connection to mission and movement.  The sweet spot of purpose, values and vision holds this tension – so that entire organisational community of moral owners, board, staff and beneficiaries all understand the core purpose, values, and vision of the organisation and why it exists.  The sweet spot helps the community live through whatever change throws at them without losing sight of the things that need to stay the same.

Going forward, we need to be working with our young leaders to reconnect organisation as a mission and movement.  It probably means our key performance indicators will go down because some of our resources will be going to build that movement rather than to purely maximise organisational KPI results or grow net assets. But we need our organisations to be movements as this is foundational to the motivation and drive of the whole organisational community.

All our not for profits stand on the shoulders of movements.  Different assistance is needed for the next generation. Foundations and the capacity-building sector have tooled up for the management needs of baby boomers, but they are typically failing to see the movement-building leadership needs of the next generation. Some leadership programs are addressing this, but too often they focus only on management skills (again) and personal attributes (again).

So ask yourself: what movement provides the foundational core purpose, values and vision for your organisation? What are you doing to build and strengthen those movements so that you can change but remain the same?

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