Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Mission and Organization Creep

The technological revolution has fundamentally changed the way business is done. In many ways, web innovations have eased the burden of starting an organization or company of any kind--one can set up a very professional "virtual office" within hours and get right down the business of providing services or making widgets. Many organizations offload their core administrative and technical functions to external providers--think of Google Apps for email and calendaring or contracted payroll and accounting services.
Many of these business-to-business service providers are increasingly (some entirely) web-based. I see useful comparisons between modern web development--especially "software as services" companies--and networked nonprofit organizations. While the services that these companies provide have changed the way nonprofits do business, there may be important lessons to learn from an examination of their business philosophies.
37signals is a Chicago-based web development company that has developed several popular online collaboration products in use by over one million people and businesses. They also publish a widely read blog called "Signal vs. Noise." One recent post caught my eye:
First, never implement more than you need to. That sounds harsh, in a grasshopper-and-the-ant kind of way, except it really isn’t. It isn’t a mandate to slack off, it’s a command to do what you know. Implement the feature you’re working on, not the feature you hope will land someday. Keep it simple, keep it minimal, and keep it real.
What lesson does this hold for nonprofits? Especially networked nonprofits whose strength and influence is, in part, a function of the network ties that bind them to other service providers?
Ultimately, it is a matter of defining the mission of the organization and making a deliberate choice to reject activities that reach beyond the scope of the organization (presuming that resources are currently available for such an expansion). Perhaps easier said than done when an unmet need is slapping us across the face or tugging at our heartstrings.
In an article titled "Strategic Performance Measurement and Management in Nonprofit Organizations" (Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 11(3), Spring 2001), Robert S. Kaplan notes:
Achieving focus and alignment, however, may be particularly difficult for nonprofit organizations. Many people who become employees of these organizations voluntarily accept below-market compensation because they believe in the mission of the agency. Their personal values motivate them to do good and to contribute to society through the agency’s programs. This is wonderful and a great source of strength for the nonprofit sector. But it is also a danger. Such motivated individuals come to the agency already equipped with a clear, albeit personal, idea about how to accomplish the organization’s goals. And they often encounter a nurturing environment in which all opinions are valued and listened to. This is an engine for diffusing organizational energy.
Do you find this "focus creep" prevalent in your organizations? How have you managed to maintain mission focus and sustain organizational energy without tamping out the enthusiasm of motivated employees?
Posted October 28, 2008 3:40 PM