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[Review] Mission Control

August 01, 2016

In Mission Control: How Nonprofits and Governments Can Focus, Achieve More, and Change the World, Liana Downey argues that many well-intentioned nonprofit organizations lack focus and, motivated by a need to be everything to everyone, end up being less effective than they could or should be. Most of us have encountered this kind of "mission creep" in one form or another. It could be a local food pantry that, after noticing that many people who are coming for food have other needs, "starts offering referrals to homeless shelters and...providing job training" without taking the time to assess whether it is "the best organization to be meeting these needs." While that organization may have "gone wide in its services, and...helped people along the way," no one is sure whether the "increase in the breadth of services enabled it to better meet the initial need." In other words, are there still people in its community going hungry?

MissionControl-3D_FINALThose are difficult and important questions, and in Mission Control Downey has created a "step-by-step guide" for nonprofits that want to avoid mission creep, find their focus, and change the world.

Downey begins her book with a chapter on how to "Prepare for Success" that looks at whether now is the right time for your nonprofit to find its focus and develop an action plan to increase its impact, who should be involved in the process , how much time your organization should spend on the process, and whether you need external help (in the form of a facilitator, advisor, or consultant).

Having determined that it is indeed a good time for your organization to find its focus, the next step is to "get the facts." And that means asking a series of questions about your clients (who are they, what do they want, etc.), your organizational structure (how many employees/volunteers, your fixed and variable costs, funding sources and reserves), and how the broader environment in which your organization operates affects its work (who are your competitors, who are your funders, who are the key players in the policy arena, etc.).

With the answers to the above in hand, it's on to the crux of Downey's process: establishing a clear, achievable goal "that will help you make decisions, motivate your team, and increase your impact." A goal is not the same thing as a mission, nor is it a vision or value statement. While both those things are important, she writes, "they are not the real differentiator between organizations that achieve great things and those that don't." That's the function of an ambitious and actionable goal.

As Downey walks readers through a series of steps designed to help their organizations craft such a goal, she makes it clear that every organization has the capacity to create meaningful change — so long as its efforts are grounded in facts. Or, as she puts it: "Good intentions, hard work, and intelligence are not enough to change the world. To succeed you must focus your efforts on the interventions that actually work."

In the chapter "Identifying Your Strengths," for example, she invites readers to reflect on what their organizations already do well and encourages them to take stock of its capabilities and assets. And in one of the "Cynic's Corner" sidebars sprinkled throughout the book, she shares an anecdote about a nonprofit whose culture was so rigid and hierarchical, it didn't even ask its volunteers about their skills and experiences — capabilities that could have advanced the organization's mission in very real ways. 

After the deep reflection and team exercises Downey champions in the first three-quarters of the book, the final section is a bit anticlimactic. A "Fit and Impact Matrix" she provides is useful for selecting an approach from the "option tree" exercise outlined earlier in the book, but the chapter on "Telling Your Story" — a topic that others have explored at book-length — is rather cursory and could have benefited from some fleshing out.

Downey closes her guide by reiterating the various mission-related risks that nonprofit leaders face on a daily basis. She explains how being too focused — to the point of not noticing (or even ignoring) the unintended consequences of an initiative or project — can lead to unethical behavior like fudging data so as to demonstrate better outcomes. But that kind of focus risk, as she calls it, can be addressed by not overly incentivizing progress toward your big audacious goal; by making sure that you are tracking adjunct measures and not just a single data point; and by tracking outputs focused on quality, not just quantity.

Short and breezy, Mission Control provides a good starting point for nonprofit leaders who are concerned about their organizations maintaining their focus and direction. Downey cheerfully prescribes a sensible approach designed to help organizations "achieve more and change the world" and in the process provides readers with an assortment of checklists, examples, and other resources to help guide them, and their organizations, to a successful outcome. While it might not be the most deeply researched book in the world, it will reward the time you spend with it and may just help you and your colleagues create a little more impact and good in the world.

Aaron Siegel is executive director of Experiments in Opera, a New York City-based arts nonprofit.

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