Development, Social policy | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

15 July 2016

If you want to change the world as a public sector leader, you are going to need to make some tough choices, writes Liana Downey.

Why do some leaders succeed in changing the world while others struggle to point to their impact? What links the eradication of smallpox, the housing of 100,000 homeless Americans, and the dramatic reduction in drunk-driving fatalities? Organisations that change the world share one critical feature. They systematically identify and target their efforts to their sweet spot—the intersection between what they are good at, what the world needs, and what works. Their leaders make a choice to be something to someone, rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

Yet too many social and public sector leaders lack focus. When surveyed, leaders report their organisations suffer from mission creep. The implication—exhausted leaders and reduced impact potential.

There are three reasons missions get out of control. First, organisations are operating in an increasingly competitive funding environment. Second, many programs start by addressing symptoms rather than root causes. Finally, most social sector leaders have a hard time saying no. The result is mission creep, and with it, diluted impact and fatigued leaders.

Many organisations start their lives with a narrow focus or activity in response to a clear need. Consider a food pantry. Perhaps a group of individuals in the local community notice that they have neighbours who are going hungry. They get together and start providing food to those in need. Before long, it becomes apparent that many of the people who are coming for food have other needs—housing, clothing, employment, and so on. So the food pantry starts offering referrals to homeless shelters and collecting clothing donations to give to its clients. Then they start providing job training.

While all these activities are useful and worthwhile, what is not clear is whether this food pantry is the best organisation to be meeting these needs. It has gone wide in its services, and certainly helped people along the way. But has this increase in the breadth of services enabled it to better meet the initial need? Are there still people in its community going hungry?

Considering root problems is wise. It is smart to make sure you are not just addressing a symptom (lack of access to food) if there is an underlying issue (unemployment) that in turn may be a symptom of an even deeper issue (lack of educational opportunities), and so on. It is worthwhile to go deeper and ask yourself if there is more you could be doing to address this issue.

However, the problem is that most organisations do not prioritise their activities as a result of this thinking, but simply add one activity on top of the other. Instead of choosing to reallocate resources to higher-impact activities or referring clients with needs to other specialised organisations, most nonprofits try to do it all and then create longer and more expansive mission statements as they try to encompass all their work.

The demand for nonprofit and public services is growing at an incredible pace around the world, but as the size of the sector grows, so does the competition for funding. This means many organisations follow the funding. Perhaps an organisation exists to raise funds for prostate cancer research, but finds out that there is a grant for raising awareness about the disease. The organisation needs the funding, and this seems somewhat related, so without too much soul-searching it bids and succeeds. Over time, the organisation’s leaders continue to do this, adding services, and before they know it the nonprofit has moved from being a research-funding organisation to being a direct-service, awareness-raising, lobbying, and research-funding organisation. This is not inherently a bad thing, but if its initial focus was to research cures for prostate cancer, and its efforts have been pulled in multiple different directions, the result is mission creep, lost focus, and potentially weakened impact—and how much closer is a cure?

Finally, those of us who are drawn to work in the social sector do so because we care, and we care deeply. Many of us struggle with the idea of saying no to clients in need. While I admire and share this trait, this habit causes real problems. When you say yes to too many things your effort, focus, and energy are diluted, and so is your impact.

So what’s a leader to do? Impact comes from making thoughtful choices and focusing your efforts. To change the world, you need a powerful strategy, and that requires you to make tough choices, not just about what you will do, but also what you will not do.

Liana Downey will discuss the steps required to help you make choices, gain clarity and focus on how to really makes a difference in the upcoming Policy Forum talk on 19 July at ANU Crawford School: Mission Control. Helping you focus, increase your impact and change the world. Register for free at:

This piece is based on content from Mission Control. How Nonprofits and Governments, Can Focus, Achieve More, and Change the World, (Bibliomotion, New South Press May 2016)

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Downey, Liana. 2016. "Mission Control: How To Change The World - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.