Making your mission matter
We talk a lot about ‘mission’ in the for-purpose sector. But what is a mission, and how do organisations think about their mission and use it?
At the most recent SVA Quarterly breakfast, Duncan Peppercorn (DP) explores this question with the CEOs of three quite different mission-driven organisations:
Julia Davison (JD) has been CEO of Goodstart Early Learning since 2011. The social enterprise was formed when a consortium of four not-for-profit organisations purchased the former ABC Learning Centres. With an annual turnover of $800 million, Goodstart has 646 centres around Australia providing care and education to 72,000 children.
Jayne Meyer-Tucker (JM-T) is CEO of national children’s charity, Good Beginnings Australia since 2007. Prior to Good Beginnings, Jayne worked in the UK in a government funded program for young children and their families living in disadvantaged areas. Good Beginnings has a turnover of $8 million and provides programs to over 8000 children.
Jono Nicholas (JN) has been CEO of ReachOut.com (Inspire Foundation) for nearly five years. Launched in 1998, ReachOut.com now operates Australia’s leading online mental health service for young people. In 2012, 1.4 million people accessed the site. It has sister services in the US and Ireland (where Jono was the founding CEO in 2009).
DP: One of the issues that Tony Nicholson, CEO of Brotherhood of St Laurence, raised when we spoke to him for the SVA Quarterly article, Taking the lead, was mission. He believed that one of the critical needs for leaders in the sector is to refocus their organisations around their mission; that we’ve lost our way and need to get back to the core question of why we’re doing what we’re doing.
In our sector, mission is vital. Whenever SVA Consulting does work with an organisation on its strategy and where it’s putting its efforts, it’s critical to ask what the mission is. Why does this organisation exist? Without this organisation, what would not happen? The mission is really fundamental.
For convenience, we are talking about the mission of the organisation, but a time-unlimited statement of purpose might be a mission, a vision, guiding principles… or even a ‘purpose statement’.
So, how do you come up with the mission? Jayne, where did Good Beginnings’ mission come from? How did you formulate it?
JM-T: When I arrived at the organisation back in 2007, we had a mission but it filled an A4 sheet of paper. There was no way anyone could remember it; it was like an essay. When I went around the country I recognised that nobody talked about the organisation in the same way. So we needed to get really clear what our mission was.
We were going to have a very concise statement and I wouldn’t let go until we got it.
The process we used involved 10 questions across four key areas: finance, interpersonal, political (both the personal and more broadly) and outcomes. I call this the FIPO principle. We used these 10 questions throughout the organisation from staff at the site level, to management, to the board.
It took the best part of six months to develop the new mission. The one carrot that I had throughout the process was to hold up the long version on A4 and say that we need to be able to recite our mission, we need to know it through all parts of the organisation. So the options were to all learn the A4 version, or to participate in the process. We were going to have a very concise statement and I wouldn’t let go until we got it.
The resulting mission is: Building better outcomes for children in vulnerable communities through effective early intervention programs
DP: Jono, ReachOut.com is rethinking itself as an organisation. You are changing the way that you position yourself. Have you rethought your mission statement through that process? And if you have how did you go about that?
JN: Yes, we have. We’re in the process of moving our brand from the Inspire Foundation to ReachOut.com. In reality this change process has been going on for a number of years. In 2008-9, we were an organisation that used technology to deliver social services; from social activism to putting computers into low income communities to ReachOut, our online youth mental health service.
When I came back to Australia (after setting up ReachOut in Ireland) I asked people, ‘if we did only one thing, what would that be?’ Everyone said, ‘ReachOut.com.’ The energy of the organisation has always been around ReachOut.com.
… how you frame it and the language you use should always be a live question in an organisation; otherwise it can veer into dogma.
Our mission was: To help young people lead happier lives. But somehow the team and our supporters couldn’t actually live that sentence. They got it intellectually, but they didn’t get it emotionally.
So we went back to our purpose and ended up with: Helping all young Australians be happy and well. That’s the one thing that any young person with mental health difficulties, or a parent with a child with mental health difficulties will say: ‘if I could be happy and well’, or ‘if my child could be happy and well, then I/they could take on any challenge’. That became a powerful statement and really focused the organisation around its programmatic focus.
I think that mission, how you frame it and the language you use should always be a live question in an organisation; otherwise it can veer into dogma. At the same time, if you are thinking about altering those words, you need to be aware that it’s a decision of incredible significance. It should take time and be complex and have a level of agony in it.
It is incredibly important to let the mission live within the organisation. I view it as a very dynamic thing. Yes, it’s something to be reviewed relatively often depending on the age of the organisation – if it’s a startup then it should be the dominant question for the first five years. If the organisation is older, it’s not a daily question. In fact, for me the conversation leading to ownership is perhaps more important than the sentence you arrive at.
DP: Julia, with Goodstart, you were in the strange position of inheriting a large for-profit organisation (ABC Learning) and the perspectives of the four partners (Brotherhood of St Laurence, The Benevolent Society, Mission Australia and SVA) who came together to create the organisation. How has Goodstart found a way to describe its ultimate purpose?
JD: Funnily enough, reflecting on Jono’s comments, we were an $800 million start-up with a different and interesting history that was not aligned with the vision of our founding members.
… critical in the transformation has not been the words of the mission, it’s been our goals and our guiding principles.
We didn’t have the luxury of six months to work it out, because we had an organisation that had been in receivership for 18 months whose staff had no direction. That’s when I realised we had a big and urgent job to do around our vision, purpose and goals. And that we had to be crystal clear that that we were doing something different from what ABC had been doing.
So I didn’t start with a blank piece of paper. I started with some work done by the founding members. The vision then was: For all of Australia’s children to have the best possible start in life.
But it’s been our goals and our guiding principles that have been critical in the transformation, not the words we used in the mission statement.
We’ve had three goals that reflect: quality, inclusion and stability. These were very deliberate and we talked about them as:
- Stability. With more money, we’d achieve more mission. We couldn’t afford to go broke as ABC Learning had.
- Quality. We wanted to provide high quality, early learning not mediocre, low quality childcare.
- Inclusion. This was very different to ABC. We wanted to reach out and include vulnerable children in a way we had never done before.
We also have the three guiding principles: children are central to everything we do, families are our primary partner, and we aspire to being a valued part of each unique community.
The goals were symbolic in that it was not all about profits and the guiding principles were fundamental to reshaping the organisation by signalling what we needed to do to keep on track.
If children aren’t central to everything we do, we are off track. If we don’t care about families we are off track. If we have a cookie cutter approach in each community as ABC had, we are off track. We’ve used our goals and guiding principles relentlessly, in terms of setting performance objectives, sharing stories, and reflecting on where we’re at. At our regular meetings we open by sharing examples of how we are living the guiding principles.
The moment when I realised that our inclusion goal had become central to everything we do was at a leadership forum with 50 senior people. A finance manager shared an example: a team member had received an enquiry about whether a child with an uncommon medical condition would be insured to attend a centre. Instead of responding with a simple ‘no’ they proceeded to renegotiate the insurance policy so that the child could attend. This was guided by Goodstart’s core principle that ‘children are central to everything we do’.
With some of the best brains on the board, you’d think it would be easy, but to do this properly is really hard work.
In the last 12 months, we got to the point that Jono talked about, where we asked ourselves whether we are clear enough about what we’re trying to achieve. I felt that after three years it was ok to revisit the mission, for us to ask ‘what are we really here for?’
It was a very good conversation to have with the board! Everyone had lots of ideas about what we should do, but they didn’t agree on our purpose, on what problem we are trying to solve? Duncan helped facilitate, and all up the process took 12 months. With some of the best brains on the board, you’d think it would be easy, but to do this properly is really hard work. Really, really hard work.
So we have a new purpose: To ensure that children have the learning, development and wellbeing outcomes they need for school and life.
We have deliberately put the word outcomes in there. We don’t just want to be doing good things; we want to be clear that it’s about making a difference to the outcomes that children need for school and life. We use similar words and hold a similar view to Good Beginnings of what we need to do to make a difference, and a clear commitment to measuring it.
We made sure that at each state and territory level, our outcomes aligned with each jurisdiction’s plans and that these linked to the mission that the board had agreed on.
DP: Jayne, for Good Beginnings how does your mission translate into what people do on a day-to-day basis?
JM-T: We made sure that at each state and territory level, our outcomes aligned with each jurisdiction’s plans and that these linked to the mission that the board had agreed on. It’s very important that you are connecting and joining up these dots. Program delivery must not be an appendage sitting on the outside of the needs of the community. You’ve got to be disruptive and ask questions that aren’t being asked, but you can’t do it in isolation; you need a way to feed your learning back in.
At the grassroots level, we have 145 different programs across the country. We had to have a reporting system that could be different at a local level, but could take information up to the state and territory level, to the national level, and up to the board level and demonstrate how we’re achieving what we’ve set out to do. The only way is through an outcomes framework and with buy-in across the whole organisation.
DP: Jono, does the mission, the purpose, change the way people behave.
JN: Yes. One thing I’ve seen in the rhythm of our organisation here in Australia and internationally is that when things are good, you artificially need to put mission and values on the table to get the organisation owning them again.
I think that when the organisation is culturally very healthy and strong, there is a dissipation of energy around mission and values. At times of decision or crisis, they burst to the top.
…it can become a way in which you exclude people who don’t fundamentally agree with everything you say. It can become too tribal.
If people don’t feel energy around the mission and values then they start deferring back to people – what they think the CEO wants them to do – again.
However there is a risk in being a values driven organisation; it can become a way in which you exclude people who don’t fundamentally agree with everything you say. It can become too tribal.
Recently, I had a difficult decision to make and many in the organisation were involved in the conversation. In the end, for me, it wasn’t really about the final decision itself. What was really important was that everyone came to that conversation using our values and using our mission as the starting point. As part of that conversation, I said that we’ve got to be very careful that our mission and values do not become dogma, but that they become the anchor point by which you make decisions.
DP: Julia, for an entity that was a huge commercial business and remains a very large business, what role do the mission and the guiding principles have in how you present Goodstart externally: to government, to funders and most importantly to families?
JD: For Goodstart they have been absolutely critical. Depending on the audience, I’ll talk about ABC being a for-profit organisation – that made a loss. But for Goodstart, the three goals are critical. We’re a unique, vast social enterprise. Importantly, we can’t dump the stability goal and say we’re only about quality and inclusion; we need to keep focused on stability. So it’s allowed us to tell the social enterprise story, and that profits are reinvested into the organisation.
DP: Does that make a difference? Do parents care?
JD: Yes, they do. We did market research in the early days when Goodstart was still branded ABC.
We asked: Would you enrol in an ABC centre? And then we said: ABC is now owned by Goodstart which is established by four not-for-profit organisations and any surplus will be invested in staff development, etc., and asked again. Thirty percent more parents said they would enrol (from 50% to 80%). So being a social enterprise had a big influence on parents’ preferences.
DP: Jono, you’re rebranding. What’s the link between mission and brand?
JN: Brand is how the mission and values get expressed in a light-touch way. In our experience, it’s how a young person will hear about us and make a choice.
All our activities operate on the internet which offers the ultimate in choice. People aren’t instructed to come to us; they make the choice between multiple alternatives.
How we express our mission and our values through our brand become incredibly important. The big challenge is lining everything up. The deeper you get in the organisation, the more genuine the brand needs to be. What you see in the brand needs to be there when you arrive at the office for a meeting. Does the person at the front desk greet you in a way that you’d expect? Is the CEO and their behaviour, what you would expect?
…non-profits undervalue their brand, particularly in the health space.
We’re quite mature in how we brand and promote the services for young people looking for help. The big question for us now is how to use that brand to engage more deeply with funders and mental health professionals. This is a live question. Are we doing the best that we can? Have we got the right communication structure?
I think non-profits undervalue their brand, particularly in the health space. Quite often it feels as though we shouldn’t brand ourselves because we’re all about quality, and somehow people should just know magically that we’re all about quality.
That’s one thing we can learn a lot from for profit organisations. They may not have the depth in their product – it earns money, but it doesn’t change the world. So they invest a lot in their brand to give them that point of difference, to give them their culture. But, we’re almost at the other end of that scale. We have the quality but not the brand.
DP: What advice would you have for organisations revisiting or considering changing their mission?
JD: Depending where the organisation is at on its journey, the work that you do and the level of comfort and tolerance to deal with that conversation will be different.
…if you’re going to change or tweak your mission, you need to be very deliberate about it.
In the early days there’s no way I could have come up with a purpose that included outcomes. People would have thought I was mad. In those days we were trying to get the quality and inclusion messages across and that we had to remain financially stable.
My first piece of advice would be to think about where you’re at as an organisation and what you’re ready for, before you design how you go about it.
And you need a reason for doing it, not just that it’s two years since the last time. It’s fine to look at it but if you’re going to change or tweak your mission, you need to be very deliberate about it.
JN: Another part to it is that it depends how long you’ve been the CEO. Wanting to change the mission is probably the worst thing that a new CEO in a non-profit business can do. What you’ll experience is that tribalism: ‘I joined this organisation out of this belief and who are you to come in and change it?’
I’ve seen many CEOs coming from the for-profit sector into a non-profit organisation saying, ‘This is the first thing I’ll do: let’s shake everything up and re-look at the mission’ rather than talking to lots of people and engaging and understanding them.
There’s an extent to which you have to ask: ‘How much political capital do I have inside this organisation to examine it’. Now I have more political capital to look at it and change it – to have the hard conversations – than on day one.
The other part is: Why are you doing it and how do you define the process for closing out?
… what political capital do you have and what political capital are you willing to expend as a CEO (or as a board) to drive through that change.
It can be really healthy to take a big strategic look at what the mission is at the board level every 3 or 4 years. Otherwise you run the risk that you think you’re doing wonderful work and should exist for ever, and in fact the rest of the world doesn’t agree with you.
It is vital to consider who doesn’t believe in what you’re doing. Who doesn’t think you’re doing it the right way? Who hasn’t heard of you? Go and talk to them!
And again, the question here is what political capital do you have and what political capital are you willing to expend as a CEO (or as a board) to drive through that change. How big is the change? Is it a big conversation or a small conversation?
Who else has a shared mission and how can we start to cooperate and collaborate more effectively together?
JM-T: Having heard that great counsel, I’d say we have a real challenge ahead for all of us in the not-for-profit sector. With 600,000 non-profits, we should all be thinking about our mission and looking at how our shared missions could work together.
As people start looking at their missions, they should consider who else they need to be linking with? Who else has a shared mission and how can we start to cooperate and collaborate more effectively together?
DP: To wrap up with a personal question: How important is the mission of the organisation for YOU in deciding that this is where you want to play?
JM-T: What attracted me to Good Beginning was seeing an organisation that had local ownership in action but at the time was struggling to articulate it. It is hard to describe. I’ve enjoyed being part of helping Good Beginnings articulate what they’ve done and achieved at the local level and agree, as a whole organisation, how best to describe the organisation.
My interest in the topic of mission relates to extending it across the sector. If that’s what’s happening in one organisation like Good Beginnings, what can we do at a bigger scale across the country? I’m incredibly enthusiastic about Australia, but I think our windows of opportunity are closing. We need to be operating as a social sector and in a very different way. I’d like to take what we’ve learnt in Good Beginnings into the not-for-profit national arena so that it can assist the sector as it becomes a for social purpose sector. I keep saying that it’s very doable in Australia, but not while we keep playing on our own – as if in our own sandpits.
JN: I’ve been with ReachOut/Inspire from the beginning – 17 years. For me the question is what’s the right time not to be there? The hardest thing for me is to take a step back and ask ‘will this organisation’s mission flourish more with a new set of eyes?’ What’s that right time?
… to what extent am I playing the best role that I can on behalf of the organisation…
There’s an emotional connection that you have and that you should have leading a social organisation.
I ask that in the reverse: ‘to what extent am I playing the best role that I can on behalf of the organisation and what capabilities are needed to take it to the next stage?’
If I were to move to a different organisation I’d have to ask ‘what’s the emotional connection?’ I couldn’t just be a CEO moving from one social organisation to another as the next step in my career. I’d have to believe in the mission and believe that the people working there believed in it too.
If you personally don’t believe in it, I don’t think you can do it.
JD: I was convinced before I joined and I’m even more convinced now that investing in the early years is the biggest opportunity we’ve got to improve educational outcomes and it’s the biggest opportunity we’ve got to reduce disadvantage.
At Goodstart we have an opportunity to live what we believe in – in our own centres. And with size there’s a level of influence; we have a responsibility to promote our advocacy agenda. And, yes I’ve absolutely bought into it. It’s part of who I am. And it has to be if you are leading an organisation that is purpose-based. If you personally don’t believe in it, I don’t think you can do it.