Commentary

Guiding Against Mission Creep

Jennifer Maher has helped build cause marketing campaigns for such causes as Make-A-Wish, the Nature Conservancy, and YMCA of America, and she’s learned a few things not only about how to deal with the mechanics of cause marketing and fundraising, but how to manage the confusing wetware involved of cause marketing, too. 

Now she has penned a wise book, her first, called Nonprofit Nonsense: How to Survive and Thrive in the Crazy World of Nonprofit Business.

Nonprofits now represent 5.4% of GDP in the United States and 10% of American jobs, according to the Urban Institute, which is the keeper of such statistics. Countless colleges now offer degrees and certificates in fundraising and nonprofit management. Indiana University Purdue University of Indianapolis even offers the nation’s first Ph.D. program in philanthropy. Every month I hear from idealistic people — college students, recent grads and career changers alike — who want to work in cause marketing specifically or the nonprofit sector in general. Generally they tell me that their ambition comes from a desire to make a difference in the world.

Generally, when I hear from these folks, I gird my loins. It can be tricky telling fervent youngsters that working for nonprofits isn’t all beer and skittles. Or that the goodness of the cause’s mission — whatever it is — doesn’t hide the incompetence you’ll likely observe, or the petty politics you’ll deal no doubt deal with, or the boneheaded decisions from management or the board that you may be powerless to change.    

Lately, I’ve just started recommending that they read Maher’s slender little volume.

Nonprofit Nonsense is both a bracing tonic for people new to cause marketing, fundraising, and nonprofits and Maher’s informed opinion on best practices in nonprofit IT, branding, managing local and national fundraising efforts, nonprofit law, and almost three dozen more topics.

It’s as if Maher has put a sisterly arm around the shoulder of her less-experienced readers and told them what to do, what to look out for, and what happens when unpleasant things begin to hit the fan!

It’s all good advice. But as an experienced practitioner myself, I found myself gravitating toward Maher’s stories, told in a friendly tone, of the sometimes exasperating experiences she has had with bad bosses, silly sponsors, and doltish donors. Everyone who’s worked in nonprofits for five years or more has their own stories that they tell each other, their therapist, (or their bartender!), but Maher has done two better than that. 

First of all, she gives these stories some context. When the boss submarines months of groundwork laid with a promising sponsor with a careless word or two it’s easy to think you’re the first poor devil to ever face this conundrum. Maher reminds us that the Club of Poor Devils With Gauche Bosses is not an exclusive one.

Better than that she shows you how to extract yourself from such bewilderments.

I would be doing Nonprofit Nonsense a disservice if I didn’t include at least one of Maher’s stories. In an early chapter she tells of the challenges of “mission creep,” which affects most companies, but can be deadly for nonprofits. Several comment cards at a nonprofit which affordable offered day care to families asked about things like family picnics with the other families, dry cleaning drop-off, and the like. Maher took the cards to a focus group of parents and after spit-balling ideas for a few minutes in a roundtable discussion, one mother stopped all the brainstorming dead in its tracks. “Please,” she said, “just take great care of my child.”  

“We know the adage,” concludes Maher, “[that] ‘you can’t be all things to all people.’ Yet it can be hard for nonprofits to hold the line against mission creep.” 

Nonprofit Nonsense is subtitled, “Volume 1.” I greatly look forward to the future volumes.

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