Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nonprofit mission drift

Within the past couple of days I've visited with people who were stunned and then spitting tacks mad about how nonprofit organizations they had come to value and count on over the years had dramatically changed their operations.  Both of the parties I spoke with felt that despite long standing expertise and commitments these agencies had to their core missions, they had recently shifted to other areas of programming. They sensed that these changes we brought on by new funding opportunities.

In one case an adoption agency was no longer offering temporary foster homes for new born babies.  This long standing nonprofit was now focusing on hard to place teens and international adoptions. Both of these services are already being provided by a number of other adoption agencies. They had recently licensed a number of temporary foster home providers, who then needed to go through a lengthy relicensing process with another adoption agency to continue to serve babies. No forewarning of this change was provided to staff or volunteers.

Another Minneapolis neighborhood center dramatically reduced its after school programming to grade school children and youth. Instead, they are now focusing on early childhood education.  The community activist I spoke with had children in the neighborhood was doubly upset, since the one park in their area was recently closed by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation. The park was then sold, unbeknownst to neighbors,  for a dollar to the neighborhood community center, which doesn't seem to be providing much if any staffing for the park.  When this concerned parent asked about what is being done for the multitude of kids in his neighborhood he was rebuffed by staff and the board of directors of this agency. In response he may generate a neighborhood petition requesting a hearing of people from the community by this nonprofit, with hopes that services will be provided for the large diverse groups of neighborhood kids with no positive outlets.

The Twin Cities United Way has shifted from funding general operating support to only supporting three primary focus areas;  basic needs, hunger and health.  So, many nonprofits that had a certain amount of autonomy to determine their community/constituent needs now are no longer eligible for funding unless they can make these programs fit within those guidelines.

To this observer with 27 years of work in the nonprofit sector it seems unfortunate that rather than focusing on core areas of strength some nonprofits are straying into other programming areas, lured by new funding opportunities.  They do this at their own peril.  Long time individual volunteers and donors or neighborhood constituents should be considered in such important program changes. Making decisions about programing only in response to funding opportunities is not a responsible way to run an organization. This is short sighted. Money follows mission. By narrowing their focus the United Way has made it more difficult for many nonprofits to sustain their previous program operations and core competencies, thus aiding mission shift.

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