Taking it Back to Basics with the Big M

For the next part in this blog series, let’s take it back to the nonprofit basics with the all-powerful mission statement. If you are now stumbling on this post or if you have just forgotten about my first two posts, I am an Activate Good intern, writing a blog series about the five leadership challenges for nonprofits and how they relate to the wonderful world of volunteerism. For a quick recap, the five leadership challenges correspond with the core characteristics of the nonprofit sector (e.g., being mission based, accomplishing some social good, their tax exemption status) and affects almost all nonprofits no matter their size or their mission. We already visited the leadership challenge of moving beyond charity to systemic change with the help of our fishing friends in the last post, so let’s now tackle the first leadership challenge of aligning mission, methods and resources.

M is for Mission

mission

One of the fundamental characteristics of nonprofit organizations that set them apart from their for-profit counterparts is that they are mission-driven rather than being profit-driven. The mission is the overarching purpose of a nonprofit, which often includes the work that they perform, why they were created and whom they serve. To put it another way, if mission statements became people, they would be self-centered and expect the world to revolve around them. In the nonprofit world, operations of nonprofit organizations really should revolve around their missions.  The mission serves as the guide light for staff, board members and volunteers.

Now, methods are the means – programs, activities, and services – for how nonprofits accomplish their missions. But nonprofits rely on different types of supports to implement their methods.  In general, resources provide support when solving a problem; for nonprofit organizations, some vital resources include donations, staff members, and property.

The power of volunteers to the mission

volunloveVolunteers are vital to nonprofits and account for a large labor force for the sector. They bring different talents to nonprofit organizations. In connection with our leadership challenge, volunteers are human resources who can help nonprofits apply their methods and activities to fulfill their missions. Nonprofits typically want to get the most out of volunteers, and volunteers are usually willing to help nonprofits in any way possible. One way to maximize opportunities with volunteers is to empower them to contribute to the goals of the mission.

I’m going to end with a story that hopefully will be both entertaining and demonstrate my point. Everyone has the best intentions when volunteering. However, their actions might be detrimental to the organization through no fault of their own, if a clear explanation of the mission wasn’t articulated. I personally have been in that situation when I was high school and volunteered for a disability rights nonprofit. One of the goals of the nonprofit was to spread awareness about disability etiquette, such as preferred language when addressing people with disabilities and other disability issues. As a person with a mobility disability, I use what is commonly known as “handicapped parking,” which is often denoted by a little blue dude in a wheelchair (his name is actually Stanley) and sometimes has yellow hash marks on the ground beside the parking spot. One day I was talking to another staff member about the lack of handicapped parking in a shopping center that I routinely visited. When I said the word “handicapped,” everyone in nearby cubicles literally stopped working, looked up and stared at me (doesn’t help that my voice travels).

The staff member that I was talking to told me that handicapped means barrier, so it does not make sense to call something that helps you a barrier. Hence, we should call these parking places “accessible parking” because they accommodate people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility challenges. As a volunteer at a nonprofit that embraced disability culture, I was glad to learn the correct terminology. Words that people use have so much power and I could share this experience when discussing disability etiquette and language with different groups of people. And who knew that a couple of years down the road that I would be sharing this semi-embarrassing story on a blog as a lesson in volunteering for others!

Got your wheels turning? Here is some food for thought:

How can we help nonprofits fulfill their missions while volunteering? How can nonprofits empower volunteers to work towards their missions?

Nonprofits, make sure volunteers understand your mission statement and have it present on volunteer sign-ups and forms. Go over the mission in volunteer trainings and connect what you are asking volunteers to do with your mission.

Individuals, skim the website of the organization and read their mission statement before volunteering with them. Look into how their programs reflects their mission statement and what other resources support their activities.