“What causes ‘mission drift’ for an organization, and what can be done about it?”

A friend who serves as a trustee of an influential organization with a strong reputation recently asked me this question.

The mission is the work of an organization, formed out of its purpose and identity. Mission drift occurs when the work separates from the identity. The phenomenon is something quite different from, and less obviously perceptible than, not having a mission, losing a mission or giving up on a mission.

Mission drift can occur like the deadly heat for the proverbial frog in the pot; blithely unaware that the peril is gradually mounting, we make no plans for the necessary changes until it is too late.

In their book “Mission Drift: The Unspoken Crisis Facing Leaders, Charities, and Churches,” Peter Greer and Chris Horst write, “Mission Drift unfolds slowly. Like a current, it carries organizations away from their core purpose and identity.” They argue that mission drift is “the natural course for organizations,” and so requires focused attention to safeguard against.

What conditions lead to mission drift? Here are the most common:

  • An organization becomes a victim of its own success. As it accomplishes a key component of its mission, it discovers opportunities that, across time, reshape its primary identity. For example, in the early decades of the 20th century, Catholic higher education in the United States developed professional schools to help immigrants prepare for vocations in their new country. Eventually, though, the professional tail began to wag the Catholic dog, and in many cases the universities discovered that they had lost their primary identity as Catholic institutions.
  • An organization blindly follows the expectations of external regulatory bodies and funders. For example, faith-based hospitals in the U.S. in the early 20th century were organized with a particular Christian focus on caring for the poor and the underserved. But eventually, as patterns of funding for health care began to shift to state and federal government, some hospitals began focusing on offering services for which they could be reimbursed. Many of those hospitals became indistinguishable from secular hospitals, and often severed their faith-based ties entirely.
  • An organization’s partners struggle or shift their mission. Christian organizations need the virtuous cycles of intrinsic partnerships to preserve, deepen and extend their identity and mission. If colleges lose their commitment to Christian vocation, for example, seminaries will find it harder to recruit enough students who want to enter full-time Christian ministry. An otherwise healthy camp, college or seminary that has gifted leadership, strong organizational governance and a clear sense of its identity and mission can grow weaker and suffer mission drift if it can no longer count on one or more of its partners to do their part of the work.
  • An organization does a poor job of describing its primary identity and mission. This is especially challenging in times like ours when deep trends are shifting the tectonic plates of our culture and our world.
  • An organization that has drifted from its mission in other ways or for other reasons overreacts, clutching onto a narrow, reactive identity that embraces traditionalism (the dead faith of the living) rather than tradition (the living faith of the dead). Organizations that become toxic in their reactivity attempt to preserve their identity largely by defining themselves by what they are not.

Organizations are organisms, and as such, they are consistently evolving, adapting, dying and (we hope) growing in healthy ways. A difference between healthy organizations and those that drift is that healthy organizations become adept at telling their own stories.

An organization with a clear identity will be able to describe and narrate more fully and coherently who it is, what key factors have shaped its identity in the past, where it ought to be heading for the future and -- most fundamentally -- why it is who it is and does what it does.

Key aspects of an organization’s identity and mission might become condensed into a mission statement, analogous to the one or two sentences we as human beings learn to use to introduce ourselves. Even as we hope those sentences point to the heart of who we are and where we are headed, we are acutely aware that there is much more about us to be understood.

Too often, like the spiels of overly coached teenagers interviewing at colleges, every mission statement begins to sound the same. We all know the “right words” that ought to go into a mission statement. Organizations in general want to highlight excellence, service, integrity, solutions; Christian organizations want to add love, witness, community, friendliness, welcome.

Guarding against mission drift, then, requires a deeper set of practices across an organization, to form a people and culture around who you are and why you do what you do.

A key is to practice traditioned innovation. This involves a continual process of “traditioning,” discovering the life-giving character of what has made whatever organism you are describing and narrating -- you, your people or your organization -- thrive over the years. People do this regularly when telling the story of their lives, highlighting key events, transitions and relationships that have helped shape who they are now. Yet they also continually incorporate new understandings of their past, present and future into the story.

The Jewish tradition famously engages in traditioning every Passover, when the youngest child begins the Seder by asking, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” That leads the host into a story that incorporates everyone present as characters. It tells who they have been, who they are and where they are going. That night is then typically linked, among Jewish children, to preparation for a bar or bat mitzvah, signaling a transition from childhood to adulthood and maturity as a member of that community.

Healthy organisms, including organizations, have embedded in their stories ongoing arguments about the heart of the traditioning process, as we continually interpret and reinterpret where we have been and who we are and where we are going. The traditioning process involves healthy conflict about how best to tell the story.

This traditioning also involves discerning what to let go of from the past in order to look toward the future. For example, what does the story that begins with “My father was a wandering Aramean” mean for how Jews should engage other groups in the context of the state of Israel? This is not an easy question. Similarly, Jesus’ answer to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” in the parable of the Good Samaritan points to complex issues about immigration and obligations to strangers.

If we practice traditioned innovation, we will be attentive to the centrality of our mission in ways that go beyond mere “safeguarding” against drift. Our organizations will stay true to our identity as we develop, mature and learn faithful, coherent ways to narrate -- or, when we have gone off track, to re-narrate -- our identity and purpose.

Practicing traditioned innovation is a form of bearing witness to the Holy Spirit who is making all things new by conforming us to Christ, the one in whom creation came to be. As we bear such witness, we will need to both lean into new gifts and repent of our failings and wayward journeys.

How do we do so? By making the storytelling of our mission a central activity in the organization. This is especially important in discussions among leaders about strategic trajectories, and also in the initiation of new employees into the organization. This practice will not guarantee against drift, but it will help leaders, trustees and other stakeholders distinguish healthy innovation in our work from mission drift.

As with people, organizations most often drift when they forget who they are, whose they are and why they exist. Telling our stories well, and sustaining ongoing arguments about how best to tell them, is central to a lively identity and clear mission.