Taylor Peyton Roberts, Ph.D., Research Consultant with the Caster Family Center for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Research
Nonprofit employees know the importance of their work, as their efforts help keep society running. Through various activities, their organizations regularly demonstrate widespread immediate and long-term impact. The work of nonprofits is diverse; they contribute greatly across many different subsectors, such as arts, education, environment/animals, health care, economic development, and human services. The scope, reach, and impact of many nonprofit organizations is often apparent to actors within the sector and to the people the sector serves.
Yet the funding structure and competitive landscape within which nonprofits operate can impose great challenges for preserving organizational identity and primary purpose. The external focus that drives nonprofit leaders’ service to society can, at times, threaten the heart of the nonprofit when paired with a lack of resources, extreme busyness to make ends meet, and/or an organizational culture that glorifies the martyr mentality (which makes a virtue out of making personal sacrifices for the benefit of a given cause). When pressures abound, it is far too easy for many nonprofits to stray away from the fundamental reason they came into existence, and instead focus on serving the needs of their funding sources, political benefactors, or the personal goals of their own leaders.
In order to remain on target with carrying out a core mission, it is helpful for nonprofit leaders to consider the degree to which they facilitate authenticity at the organizational level. To probe for this issue, a leader could ask questions such as,
- To what degree does my nonprofit operate in a manner that is true to its purpose, values, and long-term goals?”
- “Does my organization ever ‘fake it to make it’ in order to secure funding, deliver promises outside of its core realm of expertise, or deviate from key values in the name of expediency?”
Here I am offering a framework, developed from psychological theory, which can be used to guide the practical investigation of authenticity. In good and bad times, there are at least four aspects to organizational authenticity that should be considered. They involve:
- acting in accordance with primary purpose, mission, identity, and values;
- knowing the organization;
- inviting collective awareness; and
- ensuring functional and vigilant maintenance of inauthenticity when it matters most.
Act in Accordance with Primary Purpose, Mission, Identity, and Values
First and foremost, maintaining your nonprofit’s authenticity involves acting in accordance with your nonprofit’s true reason for being. Ask: “To what extent does my nonprofit actually behave in alignment with its primary purpose, mission, identity, and values?” Leaders often believe that their actions and decisions are upholding their organization’s primary goals and values when, in fact, this is not the case. Do you, as a leader, perceive that your daily work, and the work of others employees, is reflective of your organization’s broader purpose? Do you sense that your nonprofit is achieving what it set out to achieve? Do you ask others outside of your nonprofit for their interpretation of what your nonprofit truly stands for? Do your employees agree with what outsiders say, or do they hold a different perspective? To what extent to the funding sources that drive your organization’s sustainability align with your mission? Do you really, truly, act in accordance with your nonprofit’s values? If your answers to these questions begin to suggest a lack of alignment between your nonprofit’s core mission and its actions, then I strongly encourage you to keep reading.
Note that, in response to the questions just raised, it is easy and gratifying to conclude, “Yes, my nonprofit’s work aligns with its core mission,” deem your organization authentic, and then consider the case closed. However, aligning your nonprofit’s work with its primary objectives, mission, and values is not enough for the organization to remain authentic to its purpose for the long term. Why? Because achieving and maintaining organizational authenticity also requires working with the other three components of authenticity proposed earlier. Let’s next explore these remaining components by raising some key questions for consideration.
Know the Organization
Check on the degree to which you, and those around you, actually are familiar with important qualities of your nonprofit. Ask: “Does my nonprofit truly know its purpose, mission, identity, values, and culture?” If your organization’s purpose and mission is not clearly articulated, and/or if your employees are unfamiliar with your core reason for being, then that makes acting in accordance with your purpose very difficult. Do you, as a leader, verbally remind those around you of the big-picture and broader meaning underlying your nonprofit’s work? Do you invite others into the process of redefining or co-creating the significance of your nonprofit’s work as things change throughout the years? Do you openly talk about your nonprofit’s values, and the priority of those values in certain situations? Do your employees know your nonprofit’s history, particularly with regard to where your organization stands today and how that informs its future goals?
Invite Collective Awareness
Additionally, recognize that organizational authenticity is something to be maintained and managed at the collective level. Ask: “Does my nonprofit have effective methods for noticing and addressing tough issues that would otherwise inhibit our organization’s ability to be true to its purpose, mission, identity, values, and culture?” Do you, as leader, encourage employees to explore and talk about the degree to which their personal values are aligned with your nonprofit’s values? Do you have effective procedures for responding to situations when employees deviate from important organizational values? Does everyone in your organization feel respected and safe to express their opinions? If not, consider why this might be the case.
Ensure Functional and Vigilant Maintenance of Inauthenticity
Finally, recognize that there are many instances when practicing organizational authenticity is either irrelevant or not helpful for nonprofit performance. The key here is to be vigilant of when the practice of inauthenticity (i.e., behavioral deviation from purpose, mission, identity, or values) becomes a problem for the organization. Ask the following: “In moments when my nonprofit deviates from honoring its true purpose, mission, identity, or values, why is that happening? Is the result a potential issue?” Do you, as a leader, too often deviate from your mission because of the need for money or resources? Do you work to establish healthy limits to what you will actually promise to deliver to potential funders, for purposes of not drifting too far away from your established areas of expertise? Or is the competitive environment changing such that a shift in organizational strategy is actually warranted? Do you, as a leader, forego your nonprofit’s primary objectives out of some underlying guilt or fear?
Considering all four aspects of authenticity can shed light on the degree to which your nonprofit is truly authentic to its purpose, mission, identity, and values. If such questions remain ignored, the long-term risks include mission drift, being stretched too thin, or employee burnout from a lack of reinforcing deeper meaning in the organization’s day-to-day work. Furthermore, funders and key external parties may begin to mistrust or question your nonprofit’s real purpose and the degree to which it operates from a core area of expertise.
Raising questions like these can be highly helpful for reconnecting with the primary reason your nonprofit exists, and for linking that purpose with the hearts and minds of your employees. For those of you engaging in this work already, I invite you to comment below and share what you have found.
In closing, consider a quote from the movie Lincoln: “A compass . . . it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts, and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If, in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of True North?”
Leading with authenticity is not as simple as pointing your organization toward its primary purpose, mission, identity, and values and assuming it will stay its course. It requires continued effort and commitment to arrive at greater knowledge, awareness, and increasingly effective ways to learn from and maintain situations that put authenticity at risk. The ongoing process of asking the above—often challenging—questions can help nonprofits and other types of organizations gracefully navigate the swamps, deserts, and chasms of our time. This is important work. Hopefully we will be well-equipped to rise to the occasion.