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Using mission to make a difference in the lives of the people you serve

Before clarifying your program's outcomes, ask two key questions:

  • How closely is the program aligned with your organization's mission?
  • What resources and expertise do you need to help program participants achieve intended outcomes?

Focusing on program outcomes without considering these two questions is a recipe for disaster. Let's see why.

Why does mission matter for program outcomes?

Your organization's mission is your North Star: the point on the horizon toward which everyone is traveling. Your mission describes why your organization exists — who it engages and what success looks like.

Ideally, your mission is:

  • Clear
  • Compelling
  • Concrete
  • Concise

Without a clear mission, how do staff members, participants, board members and funders know if you're on track? How do you make decisions about your organization's time and resources? What game are you playing — and what does it mean to win?

What are the most common types of nonprofit missions?

Your mission provides a specific way to answer the question: To what end? For example, your organization might:

  • Provide basic needs (such as a food pantry or blood bank)
  • Deliver services that meet a specific quality standard (such as a university, health care organization or museum)
  • Help participants achieve a specific sequence of outcomes (such as a literacy program)

All three types of missions offer a unique value to the public, and all three require a different definition of success. Within your own organization, the point is to be clear, focused and in agreement on your definition of "who" and "to what end."

What are the risks of an unclear mission?

If your mission is unclear, you can't determine if a program is aligned with the mission. Worse yet, an unclear mission can align with just about any program.

Consider this example: To help families reach their full potential. Which families should we engage? What do we mean by "full potential?"

Nonprofit strategy and effectiveness stem from a clear mission. Often, however, nonprofit missions aren't sufficiently clear to determine which programs are needed to achieve the mission. Still, clarifying the mission is well within reach for any nonprofit whose leaders are ready to invest the necessary time and effort.

To set yourself up for success, use a theory of change to link your mission and strategy to your on-the-ground program operations.

Why do program outcomes depend on the organizational context?

Once you've established alignment between your mission and your program goals, ensure that the organization can commit the necessary resources. This means not only financial resources, but also leadership, expertise, staff time and the values that drove the decision to commit these resources. As your program matures, you'll rely on all of these.

Consider these key questions for program design:

  • In what activities do participants need to engage to develop outcomes?
  • What expertise is required of the staff to offer these activities effectively?
  • How long will it take participants to develop trusting relationships with staff members?
  • To support long-term outcomes, how often must activities be offered and for how long?
  • What is the appropriate caseload for your staff members?

In the most basic sense, a six-month program costs half as much as a 12-month program and a caseload of 15 is twice as expensive as a caseload of 30. Ultimately, you'll need to consider all the variables to determine the best possible solutions.

Is your organization prepared for program success?

Having the full weight of your nonprofit's leadership behind your efforts to improve your programs will help you achieve the desired outcomes. Similarly, your organization's core values, priorities and strengths will reinforce your programs. With a clear mission and a tight strategy, your programs will have the necessary foundation to achieve the desired outcomes — making a true difference in the lives of the people you serve.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.




Founding Director, Capacity Institute at Black Ministerial Alliance