Mission drift

Imagine a situation where you are in charge of a non-profit refuge shelter for homeless animals.  One day a wealthy entrepreneur makes an appointment to see you and offers an ongoing annual six-figure donation if you agree to train four animals every month and release them to perform with a travelling circus.

Would you agree with the proposal?  More significantly for the purpose of this discussion, whether you agreed to the offer or not, would you regard this request as an example of ‘mission drift’?

What is ‘mission drift’?  Boston’s Harvard University gives us a real example of actual mission drift.  Harvard’s original mission statement (1636) was “to prepare ministers of upright character”.  By 1701, this has been modified to read “To be plainly instructed and consider well that the main end of your life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ.”  Today, Harvard’s mission statement would be quite unrecognisable to its founders as it now reads “to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education”.

Mission drift occurs when an organisation consciously or unconsciously begins to engage in work that deviates from its core values.  Rightly, ‘mission drift’ is usually used as a pejorative term because it causes confusion and/or lack of authenticity as the mission (enduring purpose) of the school becomes diluted.  The school’s ‘true north’ direction and values become compromised.

Mission drift should ring alarm bells throughout any school community where it is seen to be occurring because it indicates that the organisation is veering off course in a way that is likely to damage and/or distract the enterprise.  Board members should be especially concerned as they hold the duty to define, monitor and ensure achievement of the mission, vision and strategic direction.

Entrance to the Palace of Culture, Warsaw.

Peter Greer and Chris Horst have written a very helpful book on the subject of mission drift with an admirably easy-to-remember title – the book is called simply “Mission Drift”.  They describe mission drift as “the unspoken crisis facing leaders, charities and churches”, to which I would add “and also some schools”.

Mission drift can arise from a variety of causes, but I suggest four reasons dominate:

It would be tragic if mission drift were inevitable in schools.  However, the good news is that it is not inevitable – there are several effective defences against mission drift.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

We help schools and boards develop a clear mission, vision and strategic direction through our strategic thinking support, and through workshops such as OSG-S5 Mission, Vision and Strategic Thinking.  This is also developed in depth in the book "Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You can assess the effectiveness of school culture implementation (mission, vision and values) through SMART (the Schools Mission Appraisal Reporting Tool), our ground-breaking assessment tool.  To initiate a conversation about SMART, just send an e-mail to Stephen Codrington at [email protected]

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html.