Nonprofits Should Adjust Their Founding Missions to Face Modern Issues

Nonprofits Should Adjust Their Founding Missions to Face Modern Issues

The Chronicle of Philanthropy – November 13, 2011
By Sam Gill

As the political-campaign season heats up, so have debates about whether courts should interpret the Constitution based on exactly what it says or more as a set of principles to guide contemporary affairs.

Foundation and nonprofit leaders should ask themselves the same kind of question.

Nonprofit organizations are beholden to their stated missions in a way profit-seeking corporations are not. As new pressures complicate how charities and foundations carry out their missions, the issue has become more significant than many organizations may recognize.

The political debate boils down to some simple questions: Can courts rule on the constitutionality of matters not in any way stated in the Constitution? Do we abstract principles in a way that has contemporary relevance, or do we have to stick to the text’s original meaning?

Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, explained what is known as the “originalist” argument in a 1996 address by describing the impetus for the 19th amendment, which enfranchised women: “As you know, there was a national campaign of ‘suffragettes’ to get this constitutional amendment adopted, a very big deal to get a constitutional amendment adopted. Why? Why did they go through all that trouble?”

Justice Scalia’s answer is that even if denying women the right to vote was offensive to the ethos of the Constitution, the way to deal with the issue was to amend the Constitution itself. Those who say that we can simply reinterpret the Constitution to suit our times miss its primary virtue—immutability.

Those who disagree with this view, and they are many, believe that the whole value in founding documents like the Constitution is that they provide us with principles that we can interpret and apply as times change. They believe that debating the meaning of those documents in light of contemporary realities is the very substance of governing.

Nonprofits also grapple with this issue, often asking themselves exactly how closely they must hew to the words in their founding documents.

One view says that nonprofit charters, missions, and statements of principle are rule books, laying out exactly what you should do.

Another says they are compasses, helping you figure out where you are and pointing you toward where you want to go.

Both approaches have their virtues. The rule book approach stresses the importance of permanence and stability. The compass approach is flexible and adaptable.

Figuring out which approach a nonprofit wants to follow is essential. That’s because, unlike businesses, which enjoy the luxury of assessing their effectiveness against profit margins, foundations and nonprofits can only measure themselves against how well they fulfill their missions.

Even the great advances in nonprofit assessment and evaluation over the past 10 to 20 years are limited because they seek to measure something that’s not concrete—a mission to achieve some broader good.

While fidelity to the mission has always been an important tenet of philanthropic and nonprofit efforts, three trends are making questions about what philosophy a nonprofit follows even more pressing.

Growth in use and sophistication of evaluation. Though foundations and nonprofits have vastly improved their ability to track, manage, and measure strategic efforts, they have not fully examined how evaluation results should affect changes in mission.

If, for example, a foundation discovers that a new grant-making program faces insurmountable barriers, does that mean it should pull the plug or recalibrate the mission?

Increasing relevance of public policy. The reality is that domestic and international public policy can make a difference far larger than what nonprofits can collectively achieve. This suggests that to advance their missions, nonprofits must become substantially more involved in influencing public policy.

Yet such a course not only carries legal risks but also cuts against the grain of how nonprofits and foundations see their missions.

The question is therefore how to interact with policy makers appropriately and where to strike the balance between providing services and advocating for policy changes.

Ultimately, this is a question of identity—does our mission require active efforts to influence public policy or constrain them?

Accelerating global interconnectedness between people and issues. It has become harder to support “democracy” without thinking about the role of technology or to care about “food security” without taking account of the effect of climate on agriculture.

This cuts to the quick when it comes to mission. The purpose of a mission is to create boundaries, to say we are for “this” and not “that.” Yet when “this” and “that” are inextricably linked, the boundaries begin to blur.

Such issues are not easy to deal with, but if nonprofits decide what approach they want to take—sticking literally to their founding mission or moving in a direction the founders might have supported—they will do a better job of serving society for years to come.

Sam Gill is a project director at Freedman Consulting, a Washington company that advises nonprofits.

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