Matthew Sherrington: Change and the curse of mission creep

You need to be clear and confident about what you do or the gulf between that and what people think you do can stretch to breaking point

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

Long gone are the days when we believed organisational change and restructuring were one-offs that led to a new world of stability and security. They never did. Change comes round so much faster. Managing change is now a constant and it’s all about responsiveness, adaptability and being agile.

This all sounds very good, until you look harder at what that can do to an organisation that isn’t at the same time stable and secure in its sense of purpose and its identity. Without a clear and confident sense of what you’re about, the gulf between what people think you do, and perhaps support you to do, and what you actually do (never mind what you want to do in future) can stretch to breaking point.

And at that point, you’re in for an existential crisis of confidence and a lot of soul searching. You’ll have conversations about a lack of direction and whether diversification is mission creep. There will be theories of change post-rationalising what you’re doing anyway. Fundraising communications will be challenged for not reflecting the complexity of your work. Do your articles of association need to change to allow for what you actually do these days? Does that mean a strategic review or a rebrand?

So what can lead you off mission and off message? The financial imperative of sustainability and the mission imperative for growth can be overtaken by institutional ego, leading to a dramatic expansion of activities. But the contracting game means it’s often no longer your mission, but that of funders. That’s great if they coincide, but you can easily be led into doing things for the money and growing in line with what can be most easily funded, not what you believe most needs doing.

Organisational busy-ness and vested staff interest can play a part. New work develops sideways and, because their purpose is wrapped up in it, people want it talked about to be sure it’s valued. New leadership comes in to shake things up, bringing new ideas and more change, obviously. But if you’re not clear on your identity and purpose in the first place, and don’t bring new people on board properly, colleagues will project their own values, work and purpose into the organisational vacuum.

Unsurprisingly, you’re left being all things to all people. At that point, your strategy and communications risk struggling with the challenge of "making coherent sense of different departments’ competing and contradictory bollocks that no one cares about but them", as a workshop group recently succinctly summarised it for me.

So what to do to avoid that? First, be absolutely clear not to define yourself by the activities you do. Rather, remind yourself of your fundamental purpose, dust it down and polish it up. Specific goals and objectives will shift as the world moves around you – perhaps some are achieved and opportunities open up to address new ones. Tactical activities will change too. But once you’re busy managing the operations for those new goals, are you confident they still address your core purpose?

The RNLI’s recent Creches for Bangladesh appeal is a great example. "What?" you might ask. Well, in a country with a lot of water, where 40 children drown every day, you can see how a creche is a lifesaver. Parents have no choice but to leave children at home while they go to work. It might not be lifeboats around Britain’s coastline, but saving lives at sea and preventing drowning is what the RNLI is all about.

Other organisations are navigating this challenge of pruning back activities to better focus on core purpose. More than a couple of UK charities have withdrawn from delivering contract-funded social services to concentrate on campaigning and community support. Which? is looking at lopping off its commercial financial services arm. Amnesty International is looking to campaign on economic rights and the climate crisis as part of its approach to human rights, while cutting back research on political prisoners.

You need to be really clear on your core purpose to ensure any stretch in activities is aligned and not mission creep for the sake of growth and keeping busy. Of course, change is constant. Just make sure it’s for the right reasons.

Matthew Sherrington is an independent charity consultant at Inspiring Action @m_sherrington

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