Mission as a Guidepost When the Future is Unclear

Drexel University’s Gupta Governance Institute and Grant Thornton’s biweekly Nonprofit Directors Dialogue Miniseries features nonprofit leaders and board members as they share insights and strategies for turning today’s challenges into tomorrow’s successes.

How can boards support nonprofit leaders in determining a clear vision of the future during uncertain times?

The crisis that we have all gone through and continue to go through has clarified a lot of things. Before, you focused on your budget and questions like, “Are we going to be adding 3% or 5%, or are we losing 2%?” For decades, the American Cancer Society has relied on Relay for Life, people walking around the high school track to raise money. Now, suddenly, all that goes away and as an event-based charity, you can only imagine the impact of that.

In many ways it really forces you to focus back on the mission, and what is truly important. Rather than measuring the activities, you’re measuring the results. The board can support the CEO, senior management team, and the entire organization by bringing it back to that mission and by liberating the team to focus on the mission as opposed to focusing on all the activities that they were focused on before. At the same time, that accountability of holding the team to the mission has caused certain talents to shine. Young leaders that may not have advanced in the organization for five, six, or seven years, suddenly get put in charge. This reminds me of an ancient Chinese Proverb: “Muddy waters makes it easy to catch fish.” It’s one of these things where you have so much uncertainty but also so much opportunity.

I believe that we have an outstanding board at the American Cancer Society with true leaders including volunteer leaders from all around our nation. It makes it possible to hold the team accountable and to have them focus on what’s most important as opposed to all the other stuff that oftentimes gets in the way. We are a 107-year-old organization and so there are some things that we have been doing just because we’ve always been doing them. I see this as an opportunity to use this moment as an excuse to finally do what we have always felt like we probably should be doing, but because we’re so busy doing these other things, we never did.