Here’s how nonprofits go: They start out with a mission. Someone wants to make things better, and they’ve got a plan for how to do it. At the very least they’ve figured out the first step.
Poof! You’re an organization now.
And organizations matter – they let lots of people work together, and they form the infrastructure that lets people fight the good fight more efficiently.
With luck, you get that infrastructure built. You get some funding, build a team, a board and partners and community relationships. The work gets done. The good fight’s getting fought. You’re making this world better.
And it all becomes a habit – which is fine. It’s more efficient. Take the grant, distribute funds, buy donuts for the annual meeting. Hash out next year’s calendar. When will the banquet be?
You do what you do. Poof! You’re not just an organization – you’re an institution now.
It’s maybe 5 or 10 or 45 years in, you’re sitting in a meeting, and some honest soul sits up and asks, “Why are we here?”
Oh, yeah. Huh. Why are you here?
You had a mission once – you probably still do, on paper. Can everybody at this table name it? Is it clear to them?
And does it still apply?
And do they actually believe it?
Are you here, all of these years later, to accomplish something meaningful each day? Or are you like those soldiers in the First World War who passed time in the trenches, singing over and over, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here?”
Because they had to be there. You really don’t.
So ask. Take an informal survey of the board; ask folks who work for you. Do they know why you’re here? Can they explain it, quickly and concisely, in a way that makes them want to be here?
Would it change things if they could?
Our institutions must be semper reformanda, always in reform. Self-preservation always swallows up our visions if we don’t keep coming back to them. We trade the good fight for the daily grind.
But you can always rediscover your own mission.
It takes work, and change, and therefore courage. The alternative is worse, though: You keep being here, keep using funds and time and oxygen, with no clear purpose.
You’ll be here because you’re here because you’re here.
Until you’re not.