How Nonprofits Succeed by Focusing on Others, Part 1: Learn to Say No

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Your attention gets pulled in many different directions in the day-to-day management of your nonprofit. On top of that, high-level concerns like building a strong organizational brand, incorporating the latest digital technology into your fundraising strategy, budgeting for the upcoming fiscal year, and establishing your nonprofit as a thought leader within your market space all require careful attention.

But success for many nonprofits often comes from a diligent focus on two areas:

  • How well you deliver value to those people you serve
  • How clearly you explain to donors their role in helping you deliver that value

In this part of our blog series, “How Nonprofits Succeed by Focusing on Others,” we’ll explore ways to keep you focused on delivering the most value to beneficiaries. Part 2 will cover three proven methods for communicating with donors so they understand and feel the positive impact of their generosity.


Deliver Value to Your Beneficiaries

Delivering value to those you serve starts with having a clear mission statement that helps center your day-to-day decisions.

A good mission statement is a concise explanation of who your organization exists to help and how the world will be transformed by the work you do. Here are two examples:


“NPH USA transforms the lives of vulnerable children in Latin America and the Caribbean by supporting the homes, health services and educational programs of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH, Spanish for ‘Our Little Brothers and Sisters’). Together, we help children overcome poverty and become leaders in their own communities.”

San Francisco AIDS Foundation

“San Francisco AIDS Foundation works to end the HIV epidemic in the city where it began. Established in 1982, our mission is the radical reduction of new infections in San Francisco because we refuse to accept HIV as inevitable. Through education, advocacy and direct services for prevention and care, we are confronting HIV in communities most vulnerable to the disease.”

The job of your nonprofit’s mission statement is be your true north. Just as you would check a compass to guide you to a geographical destination, you check your mission statement to ensure that your nonprofit is continuously moving in the right direction — toward the most effective realization of your mission.

Without that true north to guide you, you may find yourself a victim of the dreaded mission creep.

Mission Creep:

A gradual broadening of the original objectives
of an organization’s mission.

To some, mission creep may seem harmless and maybe even a good thing. Who doesn’t want to broaden and grow an organization’s potential impact? In reality, mission creep is categorically different from growth. Growth consists of strategically managing one’s resources in order to make a greater impact; mission creep calls upon your existing resources and spreads them too thin. Some of the dangers of mission creep:

  • Organizations that stretch beyond their core missions risk damaging their hard-earned reputations for doing quality work that makes the world a better place.
  • Mission creep puts additional strain on staff, especially if your staff is not trained or experienced in the types of services or activities you want to begin offering.
  • Organizations often end up weakening their identities — both internally and externally — by taking on projects that go beyond what they do best.

Too often, the dangers of mission creep are not evident until it’s too late. We’ve seen mission creep erode the effectiveness of entire organizations and sink careers along with it. For example, we had a client with a very clear mission statement that disregarded clear warnings and caved in to a celebrity who demanded that they fund a very high cost, low-ROI pet project. The project was clearly a stark deviation from the nonprofit’s core mission. As a result, it sucked up staff time to the point where two talented staffers left the nonprofit to pursue other jobs. The project ultimately failed, the celebrity blamed the nonprofit for mismanaging the project, the nonprofit lost some of its best talent, and donors were left confused as to why resources were expended on the project in the first place.


Avoid Mission Creep

Here are three tips to avoid mission creep:

1. Ask yourself: If we do this, will it fulfill our mission? If the answer is no, stay away. If the answer is yes, move on to question #2.

2. Ask yourself: Does my organization have the resources to fulfill the initiative? If you and your team can scale up and meet the challenge, go for it. If not, table it and create the internal capacity before you bite off more than you can chew.

3. Learn from every No. When you do say no because the new opportunity is not part of your mission or you don’t have the resources, consider it valuable practice. Nonprofits often have a hard time saying no because they want to do everything they can to make as great a difference as possible. (And very few want to turn down contributions, even if those dollars would be earmarked for a special project.) But it’s absolutely okay to say no — and sometimes your ability to serve depends on it! Declining to take on a project that isn’t a good fit keeps you focused on the prize of effectively fulfilling your mission.

Aside from these three points, review your mission statement and revise it if necessary. Use it as your true north to help you say no to mission creep and stay focused on delivering the most value to your beneficiaries.

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll explore the importance of donor-focused messaging and how that can improve both fundraising and your ability to deliver on your mission.


On average, new IPM clients see a 34.8% increase in direct mail fundraising acquisition response rates within the first year of working with us. Want to learn more?

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