Mission Driven or People Driven?

Is your organization mission or people driven?  Are the two mutually exclusive or can they co-exist?  I am confused.  The claim of being “mission-driven” has been increasingly cropping up in our conversations with association executives lately.  “Everything in our strategic plan is guided by our mission,” I am often told.  There is a definite sense of…

Is your organization mission or people driven?  Are the two mutually exclusive or can they co-exist?  I am confused.  The claim of being “mission-driven” has been increasingly cropping up in our conversations with association executives lately.  “Everything in our strategic plan is guided by our mission,” I am often told.  There is a definite sense of pride in this claim. I am not sure what it means but I am beginning to suspect that some of these executives derive more pride in showcasing mission-related initiatives than in solving practical member problems.  In practice, “mission-driven” seems to be more than a reference to an organizational model.  For many, it embodies a core identity; a raison d’être for associations. It represents all that differentiates them from mere “commerce.”  I wonder if this mentality is hindering many associations from open exploration, adaptability, reinvention and competitiveness—let alone value to members.  For example, paralyzing tensions stem from arbitrary divisions between “mission” and “profit,” and often result in incoherent systems that both need and disparage revenue. There seems to be a fundamental confusion about identity and role.

Let’s look at a definition of “mission-driven” organization by a firm that specializes in them:

A mission-driven organization can be a for-profit or non-profit, public or private, governmental or non-governmental, philanthropic or faith-based organization. In short, the mission-driven organization is formed and/or managed to accomplish a goal (or multiple goals) that extend beyond the profits of the stakeholders and include an individual, group, or societal benefit.

Below is also another definition I like, one for a demand or customer driven organization, that  comes from a white paper by Craig Marsh, Paul Sparrow and Martin Hird of Lancaster University.  A customer-centric organization is:

“…an organisation that is operated from a customer’s point of view. Rather than developing new products and attempting to convince consumers to purchase them, a customer centric firm develops products and services that customers need”

In theory, aspiring to a shared vision and mission beyond immediate profit or benefit can be invigorating and inspirational. It is not limited to associations either. Increasingly, market leading businesses engage customers in collective missions and aspirations beyond transactions to elevate the sense of community on a more strategic and transcendent level.

However, in customer-centric organizations value to the customer is still the driver of both strategy and operations and is manifested in characteristics such as:

1)      Mass customization: finding the best possible proposition for a given customer

2)      Including the consumer in the design process

3)      Structuring around the customer, and not the product, policy, existing structures etc.

4)      Solutions vs. products

In “association worldview,” however, identifying with being “mission-driven,” is often a code for committing to the association’s rather than the member’s agenda. As a folklorist with anthropological training, I am used to breaking codes; uncovering underlying assumptions and hidden subtexts behind what is being stated. So this is what my interpretation of native systems of meaning might look like.

Statement Underlying values
We are mission driven Non- profits are nobler than and superior to business whose motives are purely mercenary.“Members” are not “customers.”  Serving   “customers” is beneath usMission and revenue are incompatible. We must maintain the posture of not   caring about revenue.
Our mission is the reason members join and what differentiates us from others. If members do not perceive our value, it’s their fault.  The only remedy is to improve the way we   communicate it to them, rather than change our programs or value proposition.
Our mission and positions on issues bring us prestige Solving a practical member problem does not really contribute to our   prestige and is a lesser priority.
Our planning is driven by our mission We don’t need to spend time in digging deeply into members’ mind to discover how they think and what they really need. We are not going to innovate or re-invent   our business model and value proposition to better serve members anyway, if   these innovations do not fit our mission.
Our sight is focused on fulfilling our mission We value principles more than people.  We are change and risk averseWe are more interested in talking than listening; and in showcasing our own achievements than in figuring out how we can help members solve their challenges
We have been loyal to our mission for decades (months, centuries etc.) We are focused on the past. There is no urgency in our actions and no motivation to adapt beyond the surface.  If something is good today, it will be good   tomorrow
We are committed to our mission and vision We have a command-and-control system within which we are the exclusive content producers and distributors.  Co-development and knowledge sharing are of no value.


One remarkable association, AAFP (American Academy of Family Physicians) seems to have no problem combining the two.

AAFP’s stated vision is to transform healthcare to achieve optimal health for everyone; and its mission to improve the health of patients, families, and communities by serving the needs of members with professionalism and creativity.   Yet AAFP grounds its mission in providing members with concrete value and frames the relationship between practical and ideal it in actionable terms: for family practice to flourish it has to meet the needs of patients in a changing health care environment; and for this alignment to occur, AAFP must assume a leadership role in transforming the discipline and helping physicians transform their practices.  The focus that drives AAFP is enabling members to solve the full range of challenges facing them and succeed. To this end, AAFP assumes offers them a comprehensive continuum of services —from improving their ability to practice to re-shaping the environment in which they practice.

AAFP went far beyond wish lists in transforming the healthcare environment by taking a leadership role in pioneering the seminal Future of Family Medicine project (FFM) that culminated with recommendations for a dramatic practice re-design on the basis of the “Patient-Centered Medical Home.”  Next, AAFP took on the challenge of shepherding the implementation of this model.   Instead of the usual path of board committees and endless deliberations, the AAFP launched TransforMED as a wholly owned subsidiary to lead and catalyze transformations in family medicine and primary care.

TransforMED chose an entrepreneurial and collaborative discovery process rather than an esoteric and formal planning exercise.  In June 2006, it launched an innovative 24-month National Demonstration Project (NDP) in which 36 family medicine practices from all across the United States participated in pilot-testing and adapting the new model. Based on this type of collaboration with members,  AAFP and  TransforMED have made enormous investments to support members on all points of the value chain, from customized support for practice re-design, peer learning and support networks;  to financial strategies and models; strategic alliances with corporate stakeholders; advocacy on the policy level; training and development.

AAFP has succeeded in engaging on multiple levels – individual and industry-wide; practical and strategic—while ensuring all the while that all efforts converge on one objective: members’ ability to succeed.   My own conclusion is that as long as associations serve members, they have to be people- rather than mission- or anything else-driven to claim a position of value in their markets, industries and professions.

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