The mission is key to quality nonprofits

Published 9:58 am Monday, November 5, 2012

Column: Ann Austin, Live United

People always ask me what it’s like to run a nonprofit organization. The two qualities that I find essential are the ability to multi-task and being flexible. Nonprofits are their own creatures, and there are very unique challenges and opportunities that their leaders face.

Ann Austin

Nonprofits often have limited numbers of support staff, especially in smaller communities. My office has two staff members, and I know of several local nonprofits that function with one staff member. But these are just a few of the challenges that nonprofits face.

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In the midst of many changes, nonprofits are expected to evolve far more quickly than they have in the past. This is good in many ways, because nonprofits should be up-to-date with how to function as a business in today’s world. But we must never lose sight of the purpose of our work.

I recently read an article in the “Nonprofit Times” about mission-challenged nonprofits. Understanding the mission of the organization or business you work for is definitely the key to success. However, according to the article, nonprofits often mistake a strategy, tactic or objective for a mission.

I was at a church service a few weeks ago where the pastor had a really powerful message. He said their mission was to engage people in the love of God. He made a point to note that it wasn’t about getting more members so they could get more money to keep up the building. What are buildings when there are no people in them? And what is a gathering of people if they do not have love in their hearts?

It is important to be inspired and this is just one example — there are many other organizations in our community that can be a great example of leading by mission.

I do feel it is important to note some of the more obvious symptoms of what was termed a mission-challenged organization:

• A disengaged board of directors. Some things to watch out for are board members who are not questioning actions of staff or encouraging growth, but rather are “rubber stamping” actions. Board members should be chosen for their interest in the organization and their engagement in its vision.

• A chorus of “can’ts.” This word can be a positive challenge for one person to say, but when there are several board or staff members who continually negate any expansion of the mission or potential partnerships or setting new goals, it will most likely be detrimental to an organization.

Mission-driven organizations strive to adapt and see challenges as opportunities. They focus on problem-solving, rather than digging themselves into a hole.

Several other symptoms are tied into these two — including poor communication, limited vision and inability to determine what is best for the organization.

Much of the article talks about partnerships and being open to collaborations. I have heard this again and again and collaborative efforts are something that we are trying to encourage more among the programs we support.

It is our mission as a United Way to not only support valuable community programs financially, but to also help them achieve their mission in a more effective, comprehensive way.

Last spring the United Way of Freeborn County hosted a board member training for all nonprofit board members and agency leaders. We plan to continue trainings for nonprofit boards and leaders every year. The attendees were very glad to have an understanding of how nonprofits should run and how to accomplish their goals in the community by working with others.

We recognize the value in collaborations and their ability to sustain efforts, but only if all the groups that are involved are committed to the same mission. With the elections coming up on Tuesday, whatever decisions are made, let us focus on how to work together better because we all want what is best for our community and our families.


Albert Lea resident Ann Austin is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.