Overcoming the 'Mission Myth'
As the nonprofit sector has evolved over the years, more and more organizations are incorporating a businesslike approach to how they go about raising funds and accomplishing their missions.
In her book, "The Mission Myth: Building Nonprofit Momentum Through Better Business," author Deirdre Maloney addresses this very topic, laying out why nonprofits need more than passion and heart for their missions to reach sustained success. Here, FundRaising Success talks with Maloney, founder and president of Momentum, a firm that helps nonprofits meet their missions through better business, about the book and why it's important for fundraisers to implement business practices so their organizations can thrive.
FundRaising Success: Why did you write "The Mission Myth"?
Deirdre Maloney: I wrote "The Mission Myth" because I think there are specific challenges facing the nonprofit sector that we just don't talk about. The idea that we're giving of ourselves to the greater good somehow creates the idea that the work will be easier, less stressful or less serious. Anyone in the sector, especially those in fundraising, know that this work is rewarding, yes, but also stressful. I led a nonprofit for several years and learned many, many lessons through pain, and I found that helping others learn from my mistakes helped them not only get an edge in their own work, but also validated the challenges they themselves were facing.
FS: How is the book being received by fundraisers and nonprofit professionals?
DM: Because "The Mission Myth" integrates my personal brand of "mild audacity" and is meant to be a very practical, anecdotal and relatable book that both pinpoints the issues and provides solutions on how to work through them. It's been received extremely well. Readers from nonprofit fundraisers to managers to board members appreciate the style, humor and takeaways.
FS: Why is it so important for nonprofits to implement business and marketing best practices, especially in this day and age?
DM: A hard fact for nonprofits to face is that there are lots of other great nonprofits out there. The competition is fierce. Everyone has a mission to sell, and if we don't embrace how to bring in dollars through both the art of donor engagement and the science of systems, organizations will simply not be as effective. Some won't make it at all.
FS: What can fundraisers learn from reading this book?
DM: "The Mission Myth" works through a wide variety of fundraising strategies, integrating the art of how to make the sale and the science of how to set the organization up for success. It also tackles another tricky issue — one that many don't discuss — the paradox of boards and fundraising.
FS: How can organizations get buy-in from the top down that focusing entirely on the mission can be detrimental without thinking strategically about sustaining the organization?
DM: The top levels need to understand the financial picture. If board members don't understand how to read their balance sheets and financial reports, they need to learn. If they don't understand the financial climate, they need to learn. Bringing in entrusted individuals from the outside — especially those representing funders or corporate supporters — is a great way to have this message delivered. Recruiting people onto the board from the funding or business sectors, who believe in running nonprofits with a business mind and also understand the distinct roles the board and staff play in this, is also helpful. At the same time, managers cannot paint everything as rosy when it's not (tempting as it might be). They need to assess the situation, bring forth the challenges and present various solutions for discussion.
FS: What organizations have you seen successfully implement and integrate the four M's — management, money, marketing and measurement — you describe in the book?
DM: I learned about the four M's by working with the organization I ran — Colorado AIDS Project — to implement them successfully. To be sure, I had a lot of help and made a lot of mistakes along the way, but in the end we were stronger and more sustainable because we embraced them. At the same time, there is never a four M's finish line. New people, new needs and new strategies mean nonprofits must be continually diligent to integrate their missions with the four M's, always adjusting and evolving over time.
FS: What are the key takeaways for fundraisers?
DM: There are a few. First, it's not popular, but nobody will love the organization as much as those who work at and volunteer for it. That means that fundraisers must engage in sales — good sales — to inspire audiences to not just give, but to give to them instead of giving to other organizations. Second, asking for money is hard, so work with staff, boards and leaders to get good at it. Some will never embrace it, and so you must work around that challenge. Third, no matter how great the mission, nobody owes a nonprofit anything. It's up to the organization to convince people to give, to give again and to give instead of giving to the competitor. This is done through excellent strategies that clearly articulate the impact of the organization as well as how the nonprofit ensures dollars are spent ethically, legally and in the ways intended.
FS: Anything you'd like to add?
DM: "The Mission Myth" lays out the reality of running a nonprofit, but it also spends a lot of time on the hope. It is possible for organizations to break through challenges, grow, and engage with various audiences and each other in a functional way that gets results. The more fundraisers see the current environment as an opportunity to stand out by doing good well, the more energized they themselves will be to find new levels of success.