Case Study: Community Cares Risks Mission Drift as Services Expand

Image: Buildings on a corner, with postcards and people seated in front. Author: Hans. Source:

Image: Buildings on a corner, with postcards and people seated in front. Author: Hans. Source:

Consider the importance of clear strategy as part of aligned Operational Layers. What happens when clarity and commitment aren’t fully present?

In this case, we’ll consider the (fictional) nonprofit Community Cares, an organization that was built thirty years ago, originally by a group of parents to address the needs of its community. The organization thrived with its early energy, grew professional leadership and developed a strong reputation; after ten years it really had momentum! As the community changed, the organization expanded what it offered, from youth development and enrichment at first, to a broad array of services including teen parenting, workforce development, aging-in-place, and homebuyers’ assistance programs, many of which were offered in multiple languages to ensure access for the diverse community and were available to an increasingly broad catchment area. Staff, supporters, and the individuals attending programs are deeply connected to their respective programs. This sounds like a great organization, perhaps.

There have been some less pleasant consequences of trying to “do it all.” Staff turnover is high, because there are limited growth opportunities within each program area and staff are emotionally tied to their programs’ focus but not to the organization - staff talk and think about the consequences of their actions only as they pertain to the programs they are involved with, but do not attend to, ask about, or consider organization strategy or policy; they connect to other staff when it will help their programs and clients, but not otherwise; finance, development, and other non-program staff aren’t really integrated in a meaningful way.  Management is siloed and competition and “politics” are pervasive. Funding is often restricted to a single program area, and development staff are stretched thin managing relationships with very different funders, while different departments resent one another around resource allocation.

Generally, confusion is high and coordination is low because policies have been developed and managed separately within each program silo.

Are we suggesting it’s a problem to be a multi-service agency, expanding to meet new needs? No, certainly not. In fact, Deep Why Design works with such organizations to get into alignment. However, we would ask about the organization’s strategy… what is the “why” or “to what end” that can connect all these divergent programs? If there is a clear and compelling “why,” we have a solid starting point. But if the answer to “why” is “these are all important needs and we had funding available,” which is all too common, then the organization has a strategy problem. Such a strategy problem might result in challenges with key stakeholders:

  • The board seeming “disengaged, not meeting their ‘give or get’ expectations,” perhaps because they don’t feel knowledgeable or confident about the strategy.

  • Funder confusion, lack of trust, and potentially reductions in funding.

  • The Executive Director feeling pulled in many directions, without a coordinated senior team that leads as a true team.

Fortunately, addressing the core issue can quickly change these and other consequences of the strategy problem.

Learn more about the concepts and theory behind this case study in the post “Operational Layers: Strategy and Ecosystem.”