A brief meditation on memory and mission

Memorial Day was originally Decoration Day, an occasion for abolitionists and freed slaves to place flowers on the graves of Union Army dead in honor of their sacrifices in the cause of abolishing slavery. Over the years, the holiday became first a remembrance of all the Civil War dead, and then of all American casualties in all wars. In similar fashion, Armistice Day–celebrating the end of the First World War–became Veterans Day, a holiday to honor soldiers who survived all of our many wars.

There’s nothing wrong with change, of course, and if we couldn’t shift our understanding of what happened in the past we couldn’t learn anything from it. But it’s worth wondering whether the United States is still wrestling with the consequences of slavery in part because of the seamless shift from honoring those who fought to abolish it to honoring equally those who fought to retain it.

In the same spirit, it’s worth wondering whether nonprofits who’ve shifted from their original missions have gained more, or lost more. The March of Dimes, created to eradicate polio, transofrmed itself into an agency to fight birth defects once its original mission was accomplished; and it’s not clear that the world would have been better off if the agency had instead dissolved and left it to others to re-establish the organizational structure necessary to run a successful nonprofit business.

But ask yourself whether your nonprofit is still pursuing its original mission. If it’s not, is that because you’ve consciously adopted a newer and better one? Or because somehow, through changes in staff and Board personnel, you’ve forgotten what you were originally supposed to be all about?

Nonprofit executives roll their eyes when asked to review mission statements, and with good reason: often the exercise results in nothing more than a paragraph equally incapable of offending anyone or communicating anything. But if you were founded as a social service agency to help immigrant Irish at the turn of the 20th Century, and you’re now helping immigrant Latinos at the turn of the 21st; or if you were founded as a domestic violence shelter and you’re now providing mostly counseling services to the victims of domestic violence, make sure what you’re doing now is what you intend to be doing.

Or, as Gandhi did not say: don’t be the change you don’t seek.

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3 Responses to “A brief meditation on memory and mission”

  1. Gayle Roberts Says:

    Good post, thanks. Am going into a planning retreat next month with a Board I sit on. Might just have to bring this along.

  2. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I’m glad this proved timely for you. “Mission creep” seems to me to be as big a problem among nonprofits as in the military, but much less discussed.

  3. Doug Says:

    What is the price of reconciliation after a civil war? A question commonly asked in Bosnia, Spain, Rwanda, El Salvador and one that will surely be asked someday in Iraq.

    Part of the gain from changing Union Day to Memorial Day has been the fading of Confederate Memorial Day. A good thing, yes?

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