Business Model or Mission Model?

Which to choose?In plain English, the word “mission” doesn’t mean “something we do forever.” A mission is either accomplished or impossible. We either get the job done, or we go home.

Which means the most powerful question any change effort can ask is, “If we intend to accomplish our mission and actually change conditions in our communities, what should we be doing, and in what order?”

How to Prioritize Our Programs
That is the question we are facing right now at Creating the Future, as we fully intend to accomplish our mission within 10 years of having all our programs in place.

What we intend to accomplish: We intend to see social change-makers skillfully putting their potential into action. We intend to see people aware of what it takes to create the healthy, humane world we all want. And as a result of all that, we intend to see conditions in communities actually making huge leaps forward in changing for the better.

So then, if we intend to accomplish our mission, what should we be doing, and in what order?

Interestingly, our quandary is not about the first half of that question. While we have not yet developed our complete community / global impact plan, we have a pretty strong sense that accomplishing our mission will require programs in these four areas:

• R&D
• Education
• Demonstration
• Convening and Engaging

It is the second half of that question that has stopped our program development efforts. Which programs will we develop first? And that question has raised far more questions than answers!

Which is why Creating the Future’s board will be taking up this issue at its April 8th board meeting.

What Normally Happens
In most organizations, pretty much all programming decisions are left to the staff, as the board assumes the staff understands more about the nuts-and-bolts of programming than the board (which is true).

But prioritizing is one area where board input could be invaluable. Prioritizing has nothing to do with how we execute programs, and everything to do with the “why” question: Which is more important, this priority or that one? And any caring, committed board member has valuable experience and wisdom to share about those types of questions.

The Prioritizing Quandary
Here are some of the issues Creating the Future is facing as we consider which programs to develop first.

What will accomplish the mission?
If our main priority is to accomplish our mission, we will prioritize programs that help ensure that social change efforts quickly reach a tipping point, where effective and skillful means for accomplishing change are the norm among change efforts.

The mission-focused priority would therefore be early adopters – the disparate and not-so-easy-to-find leverage points who can create rapid shifts in norms.

What will be most compassionate?
Prioritizing key leverage points – that small group of widely dispersed individuals who are ready and willing to try something new and transformative – ignores the fact that most people are not ready for that degree of change. More importantly, it ignores the fact that many people doing social change work are struggling – they are struggling to survive, struggling with frustration and perhaps even burnout. For years and perhaps decades, they have been using the systems they have been taught to use, with little result.

The compassionate priority would therefore be to help people who have been beat up by systems, by burnout, by their own frustration. Because people in these circumstances feel they have tried everything and nothing will work, taking the compassionate route may not be the easiest route by any means. People will need to build considerable trust before they will take action, as they long ago moved beyond believing that anything will change.

What will pay the bills?
Then there is the practical reality that if we meet people where they are, with exactly what they think they need, there is a market for that. People want a magic pill – the magic board pill that will energize their board (or get the board off their back). They want the magic money pill that will make all their resource issues go away.

The business priority would therefore be to focus programs where there is a ready market.

What We are Realizing
The more we thought about the pros and cons of each priority, the more we realized that these same questions are at the heart of prioritizing decisions in every organization and enterprise, whether they are openly acknowledging that or not. AND that these often unspoken priorities are what are determining the degree of change any organization or enterprise actually accomplishes.

Let’s use a Food Bank as the counterpoint to Creating the Future’s programs.

Should Creating the Future prioritize educational programs that will lead to the greatest change happening as quickly as possible? (Food Bank: Perhaps “Should we prioritize our resources to focus on ending poverty?”)

If Creating the Future chooses this priority, the relatively small market for our educational programs would need to be identified and nurtured and built. For a small nascent effort like ours, the investment of time and resource in identifying and cultivating that market is a very real concern. But if we DON’T do this, we will never accomplish our mission – we will be doomed to just keep providing educational programs forever.

(A food bank would need to make major changes if they were to prioritize efforts to end poverty over efforts to feed people – both to their internal systems and to building relationships for funding and partnering.)

Should Creating the Future prioritize educational programs for people who are dedicated and caring, but who have been burned by dysfunctional systems? (Food Bank: Perhaps people who have been through job training, only to be stuck in the loop of working poverty – people who have tried everything the system has suggested, and they are still struggling.)

If Creating the Future chooses this priority, we will spend a lot of time building trust – helping people regain their emotional sense of what is possible while simultaneously showing them how small steps create immediate results. This will take time and patience and will have even less potential for revenues. But if we do NOT do this, we will never accomplish our mission.

(A food bank would have to dedicate tremendous resource to outreach and engagement, just to get people to trust the food bank AND trust the thought that things could actually be different for them. Once the outreach and engagement had built trust, the food bank would then need more resource (or time to find partners) for case management, to help people achieve their potential to move beyond where systems have led them…)

Should Creating the Future prioritize educational programs that go where the money is – giving people what they think they need? (Food Bank: People already donate – and funders fund – for feeding hungry people.)

If Creating the Future chooses this priority, we will be absolutely meeting a need that exists, which will also be working from a place of compassion. It will also open the door to talk about the next step of what is possible. But if we do this, we will also be likely to become reliant on the safety of this business model, as we know it is where the money is. We will build all our systems around DOING our mission vs accomplishing it.

(And we know what this has meant for not just food banks, but all organizations that have been doing the same work for years, watching the need increase rather than decrease…)

What to Choose?
It becomes clear that there are no easy answers here. There are only so many hours in a day, and prioritizing one area means de-emphasizing the others. Do we emphasize mission, or do we emphasize money? It is the rare board that talks about the extent to which programming decisions are deeply rooted in this values-rich decision.

Aiming at what is possible is risky in many ways – financially as well as reputationally (what if we aim and fail? No one has tried this before! It’s so big, so scary!).

However, in the global scheme of things, isn’t failing to aim at what is possible more risky – putting our communities at risk of never changing, and then putting them at further risk of losing faith and trust that change is even possible?

Then again, if we have no resources to do our work, how can we accomplish our mission. And…?

This is what Creating the Future’s board will be discussing at our April 8th board meeting. We invite you to join this conversation – not just watch, but join us to ask questions and share your opinions / experience / thoughts. Info on how to participate in that meeting is at this link.

We hope that our discussion generates discussion in your own organization or enterprise – to link your leadership to your results with the most powerful tool leaders have – the power to decide what is the most important thing to do.

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