While a nonprofit’s focus can become hazy through a lack of clear direction, organizations can also lose focus because of success. This happens when an organization is approached by other nonprofits, government entities, or funders to take on a project simply because it is a successful organization – whether or not the project is within the organization’s focus.
For example, a food bank known for its outstanding work might be asked to take on a struggling farmers market. The board of the food bank might discuss this option and be tempted by potential revenue and the opportunity to meet a community need. Still, this move could pull from the original focus of the food bank. The board then needs to decide if taking on the farmers market would threaten the food bank’s clear direction, its unrestricted funds, or its people – all essential to sustainability.
This is not to say that focus should restrict activities. In fact, once an organization is clear on its focus, more opportunities to achieve success through strategic partnerships materialize. Equally, focus does not require a nonprofit to adhere to the same activities year after year. Good planning requires that nonprofits look internally and externally at the ways to accomplish their purpose and values. As long as an organization is clear about its purpose, it can be flexible in every other way.
Has your organization ever been put in a position where you’ve been asked to take on a project that would take away from your primary focus?
Dennis McMillian is President of The Foraker Group, a nonprofit capacity building organization based in Alaska, and the author of Focus on Sustainability: A Nonprofit’s Journey.