Chapter I: Why Managing As Mission?

Hi! I’m glad you are here.

If you were really here, in person, I’d ask you if you wanted tea or coffee or water (or if it were later I’d offer you a drink drink), and we’d have a face-to-face chat, and we could actually talk about our ideas about managing as mission. But since I’m writing and you are reading, you are going to have to make your own beverage and hopefully the sentences and chapters that follow will allow a conversation to start in your head—and your heart. And doubly hopefully, you’ll take those thoughts and talk about them with others with whom you work.

Managing As Mission: Linking organizational goals and process through managing to create the world we want has been written for nonprofit managers, leaders, boards, and people who may someday be in one or more of these positions. Its core premise is to demonstrate that by linking the following three things: the organizational mission (why the organization exists and what it is supposed to do); the process by which we get to the mission; and the way we manage our staffs and ourselves, we can create systems, interactions and ways of thinking within our organizations which are models for the world we want to see outside of the organization.

Managing As Mission will allow you and those in (and outside of) your nonprofit organization to:

  • Reframe the idea of nonprofit mission by considering the origin of ‘mission’;
  • Gain an agreed-upon, values- and relationship-based understanding of how your organization will achieve its reoriented mission;
  • Embrace managing as a method for promoting and utilizing that understanding; and
  • Increase credibility with those served by the organization and others in the nonprofit world.

As both a book and an idea, Managing As Mission bridges the publishing categories of Management and Self-Help; if we are going to see a different and better world, both people and processes need to change: It’s not just one or the other. Relationships are central to that change, and this book will give you information and exercises on working relationships—the kind in which managers, staffs and systems are impacted and changed by working together to reach the mission, and result in an organization that is reflective of a better world.

Now that you have an idea of where we are going, let’s start with an example of managing described by a friend of mine:

“A few years ago, I was hired to run a [X] program at a large advocacy organization. The organization’s mission was to ensure women’s health, age 18+, internationally, focusing on things like the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, partnering with groups like the International Women’s Health Coalition, Planned Parenthood International, and others on campaigns to change policy. I came into the organization really excited and with high hopes, I had heard it ‘walked the walk’ and was deeply mission-driven.  I had a small team based in the same office and I was told that essentially, I could run my team as I saw fit within the mission and strategic plan of the organization. My boss told me that he was really committed to getting inputs and opinions and I was excited to bring my experience to the new job. I had a lot of first-hand experience in both the US and in humanitarian situations as a health educator and was glad to be able to use it for advocacy work.

“During orientation, I got my first red flag; in a meeting with my boss and the managers that made up his team, I watched him ask questions and then tell each person—in a very nice way—why their idea would not work, how they needed to change their thinking, sometimes pulling one idea out of what they said and dismissing the others. It was clear that he had something in his head that he wanted, and was asking questions to try to steer all of us toward his goal, his thinking. I really thought it was odd because he was talking about building wells and advocating for potable water for boys and girls, and it was clear that the organization’s mission was to advocate for women’s health. At the end of that discussion, he mentioned that there was a grant available to work with [a coalition of humanitarian organizations] on issues of children and water, and that this would be a great opportunity for the organization. After the meeting, I asked someone—it was uncomfortable because I didn’t know anyone yet—and she looked at me and rolled her eyes before she said, “What can you do?” and walked away. She did say hi and introduced herself and I introduced myself but that was it.

“Later, after eating lunch alone—I thought there might be a plan for me to meet people, especially those who were at the same level as me so I could get to know them—I met with my boss. It was obvious he was really, really smart, and that he had some experience, but definitely not as much hands-on as me. So I sat down and the first thing he said after a couple minutes of talking was something like, “Wow, can you believe that meeting this morning? I was trying to get a point across and all I got was resistance. I’ve been working on this grant for months and I just can’t get people to come around. I just don’t get it. It’s a lot of money, it’s raising our profile.”

“I was, I want to say surprised, but really I was shocked. So I asked him what he thought the problem was and he went on and on about [a colleague] saying that she was stubborn, not a team player, and she was openly contradicting him and she was impeding progress. He also said that nobody liked her, that she kept her team separate from the rest of the managers’ teams.  I did not know what to say, anything that I said could be taken the wrong way and I didn’t want to start off in a bad way, on a bad foot. So I sat there and listened to him for ten minutes talk about all the issues he has and how he wants to move things forward but there’s a lot of resistance except from the CEO who thinks the same way he does about grants and expansion and how we get the organization’s name out there. He told me about the great relationship they have, how she goes to him when she has questions, you get it. I tried to bring things back to my work with some success, we talked about what he expected from me—never asked me what I expected from him—gave me a bunch of stuff to read like the strategic plan dashboard, job descriptions, marking and branding guidelines and more and told me that we’d have a call in a couple of days. The office where he worked and where I worked were in two different places. When I was leaving his office, he asked me to straighten out a picture that was hanging on his wall, which I did and now I feel sick just saying that.

“A week went by and I didn’t hear anything, but my staff were in regular touch with him. I did a lot of things in the office, set up my systems, got to know my staff, we had a lunch together, I set up meeting schedules and found out what they were doing. I still didn’t hear from my boss and I finally sent a meeting request during the middle of the next week and got a bounce back that he was traveling. I had no idea. My staff knew, but I didn’t. Really?? He’d talk with them, email them about stuff—work, I think some of it was personal. But I couldn’t get him to set up a meeting with me. Then finally he sent a meeting request for a 30-minute meeting the next week and then canceled it 15 minutes before we were supposed to talk. He said that it was an ‘emergency finance meeting’. I had an agenda, I had a lot of questions, and then I had no one to ask. The other managers and I hadn’t had a team meeting with him since that first one, and I had no idea when we’d have another, and I wasn’t in an office with anyone else at my level, so I didn’t have a relationship with them and I didn’t know what to do. My staff were nice to me, there wasn’t any overt friction, in our meetings when I asked them about program work, or whatever, they’d tell me what they were doing and for the most part it was aligning with the mission and advocacy. They were both really passionate about women’s health and it was great that at least in that way we were all on the same page. I set up weekly staff meetings for my team.

“I decided to email the people from the team meeting just to see if I could start to get to know them, you know, what they do, ideas for my area, what had been done, how they thought about the work. Three out of four wrote back, and the one that didn’t have an out of office message, she was on vacation. I set up calls for that week and for the most part they were really helpful. I finally felt like I knew something about the strategy—you know, you can read the documents but how they get translated into action can be different. Anyway they told me a lot, even the one who rolled her eyes—she really wanted to talk and not just about the work. I was really leery about getting into this with her so kept directing back to the work. The one who he said was stubborn talked the least and really pushed on the mission and how we needed to stick to it in the work. Then she said, “But maybe you shouldn’t be talking to me given I’m not so popular with [the boss]. Again, I wanted to keep the call about work, and I thanked her for talking to me, and we hung up.

“Early the next week, I get a call from [boss] who told me that he heard I had talked with the team and it was pretty clear that he was edgy. I said I had, and that it was really helpful to me to get to know them, their take on the work. And then he got mad. Saying things like, “You need to come to me first, you need to be getting your information from me, I talk to everyone and if you have questions text me, I get 500 emails a day and I can’t get through them all, I’m totally overworked” and on and on and on. I was totally, utterly shocked. I felt like I had done something wrong—like talking to my colleagues is wrong—at least it wasn’t in my last job—and that he was the only one I should get information from. Or talk to. After some more dressing down, he stopped, and I was silent, I had no idea what to say. I needed the job and I really didn’t know him and I didn’t know what to do. So like all ‘good girls’, I apologized. APOLOGIZED! IN A WOMEN’S ORGANIZATION! I thought I was going to be living the dream, but it was turning into a fucking nightmare. He talked some more, told me why it was important to go through him again, and after a little while he said, “Don’t worry, my bark is worse than my bite”. And at that point, I knew this was probably not going to work. I was furious. Not just angry, livid. I’d stick it out as long as I could but I knew I’d probably have to look for another job.

“One problem was that I was alone. I was Isolated with no one to talk to. I had no real authority over my own staff—and that wasn’t even what I was looking for, I just wanted to have some way of doing what I was hired to do—manage the office and work on women’s health. I eventually went to human resources but it took forever for them to get back to me and I got more pissed. I thought about talking to his boss, the CEO, but I’d seen their interactions in meetings and knew, because everything had to go through him, that that would be disaster. I had some off-line chats with other managers and started to get to know them a little, but it was clear that everyone was pretty much in the same situation and that things had been tried to make change but nothing changed. They told me that in the main office, people spent more time complaining about people, him included, than doing the work.

“I started to feel invisible. It was clear to me that I wasn’t needed, my staff were ok doing work given to them by my boss. Nobody asked me anything, nobody needed anything from me, ideas I had were either shot down or ignored, it was like I didn’t exist. I was totally demoralized. And as much as I hate to say this, I used my time at work to look for another job. And I found one in another organization that focuses on research and advocacy with girls and women. It’s not perfect but it’s a whole hell of a lot better than what I was dealing with. I’m much happier, I’m actually doing work, good work, with my team and we are seeing policy change and that’s completely exciting. Communication is good up, down and across lines and it’s really helpful. Lots of group decision-making. I get a lot of ideas from people and they say they get good ideas from me. My direct service experience is really helpful.

“I never want to be in a situation like that other one again. I really got how it feels to be ignored, to feel like what you have to say or to offer isn’t asked for, isn’t wanted. And abused. Probably like a lot of the women we work with and for feel. So that was my worst experience in being managed and my goal is to make sure I don’t ever do that to my staff. It was unbelievable.”[1]


Sorry to start our chat with such a negative story. I’m wondering if you can see yourself being managed, your experience, in any part of this situation. Or if you are a manager, whether you have made some of these mistakes. Take a minute to identify the specific things that impacted you. You might even jot them down if that would be helpful.

The nonprofit described above is an example of a nonprofit organization managed, at least in the division described, in a way that is secretive, segmented, siloed, competitive, hierarchical, isolating, diminishing, abusive, off-mission, self-involved and self-interested; not reflective of a world in which people are equal, valued, heard, lifted, lifting, collaborative, open, flourishing, focused. The structure, management, processes and behaviors do not seem to reflect a world in which people’s voices, especially those of women, are not lifted up or respected. Mental health does not seem to be valued, and attempts at internal advocacy fell on plugged ears. In fact women were actively, if unconsciously, demeaned. It is an illustration that, even though this organization may be in some ways meeting its mission, the way it is getting to the mission, the internal methodologies linked to how the organization is managed, is deeply flawed causing staff to feel angry, frustrated, invisible and unhappy. And as much as we might want to build a barrier between our emotions and our work, some of these feelings are going to spill over either at work or in our personal lives.

Research in the for-profit sector has shown that staff who are frustrated and unhappy are less productive and lack the desire to innovate (Oswald, Proto, Sgroi, 2014). And are the main reasons good staff leave—according to Victor Lipman’s The Type B Manager: Leading Successfully in a Type A World, people leave managers, not companies (2015). In 2013, the head of the Gallup organization wrote: Here’s something they’ll probably never teach you in business school,” wrote Gallup CEO Jim Clifton “The single biggest decision you make in your job—bigger than all the rest—is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision. Not compensation, not benefits—nothing.

This is coming from the for-profit sector. Which leads me to ask, why would those of us in the nonprofit world—people of passion, commitment to eliminating poverty and violence against children, providing healthcare, protecting endangered species and habitat, working to mitigate climate change—knowing that good managing, inclusion and relationship-building are keys to success, create organizational systems and engage in ways of managing that perpetuate all that we are working to change? Why would we manage our staff in a way that undermines that process? The very idea of it makes me so sad.


I love the nonprofit world. And I am very frustrated by it. I have spent most of my professional life in the nonprofit sector, and much of that in international development, humanitarian response and policy creation in both large and small organizations, in the US and in other countries. I have found similarities and differences between myself and almost every person I have ever met, whether in refugee camps in Chad, working with youth in Northern Uganda, in a women’s shelter in New York or with diplomats at the United Nations. More importantly, I’ve learned something from almost everyone I’ve met, and have been changed by meeting them, by listening to them. By testing ideas with them. By the relationships that have developed that pushed me to think differently about how I see the world. By being told that maybe the way I saw something wasn’t the way another person saw it. In each organization I was working toward the achievement of a mission, but the process of getting to the mission, and how the organization was managed, was wildly different from one to the next. In some it was helpful. In others, not so much.

If we want to see change in the world, inclusive, sustainable change, we in nonprofits have to demonstrate that we are not expecting others to do what we have not been able to do ourselves: change. And that change needs to be based on the world we want.

Throughout the book I will refer to ‘the world we want’ or ‘the world we want to see’. My frame of reference for this world is based on the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals: a world without violent conflict, that acknowledges and lifts up the inherent dignity and worth of the human being, establishes the equality of men and women (and if you include the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children too), provides justice for all through the rule of law, allows for and encourages social progress, inclusion and a celebration of diversity, freedom of speech and belief and from fear and want, an equitable standard of living, climate action and responsible production and consumption. If this is not the world you want to see, it’s good you found out now so that you can read something else. If it is, and if you are or might become a nonprofit manager, we can through our actions undertake to create a world within our organizations that reflects the world we want to see outside our organizations, moving us at least one step closer to creating that world.

In addition to envisioning the world we want, we have to be as clear about how to get there as we are about where we are going. If we are committed to, for example, sustainable community development, implicit in that is the idea that we should work to put ourselves out of business by lessening or eliminating the reasons for our being—solving problems in collaboration with those experiencing the problems—then we need to figure out how to create equitable, participatory processes for long-term problem-solving, and step out of the way. Does everyone in the organization agree that this is the goal? Has anyone ever asked the question? What about the people in the community, have they been asked? Has there been a discussion about the idea and what it would mean for how the organization works both externally and internally? By asking the question, engaging in discussion and reaching a decision, a means-ends process has begun.

Linking means and ends will have impact on how organizations interpret their structures. My experience and my theoretical foundation have oriented me to the idea that the nonprofit organizational mission and those being served were at the top of the organizational chart, and everything else flowed from that. Location, board, structure, staffing, systems, everything. While I still believe that the mission has to be the point from which everything else in the nonprofit flows, mission needs to be as much process-driven as goal-driven. Reaching the mission has to be inclusive, people need to be heard and acknowledged, and they need to be treated equitably. It’s good to recognize that we don’t and can’t know it all—it can actually take a lot of the pressure off.

Linking means and ends, seeing the relationship between them, also implies a process of getting to a mission and as a reflection of the mission itself, and leads to taking a different view of ‘management’. It necessitates moving from ‘management’, a static idea, a noun, an idea, to ‘managing’, a process, a verb. Linking ends and means moves us to make a choice, to decide to manage our organizations in ways that reflect the change we want to see, because how we get to mission is as or more important than mission accomplished. The process is the product is the process. Managing As Mission provides a way to unite means and ends through managing.

During an interview for this book, the leader of an international nonprofit said:

“I think a lot of times people become very mission-oriented, and that can become equated with if you achieve the results, the means don’t matter. I happen to believe, think that’s wrong. Means do matter. The mission is about having conversations, and recognizing that everyone has something to contribute, and getting people to talk about it. To come together and work together to build something greater than any individual can. If we don’t operate ourselves that way, it’s not only hypocritical, [it’s] also very counter-productive. Any results we do achieve, anything we do accomplish, is weaker because we didn’t do it in the right way, because we didn’t live up to its ideals. So I think that whether it’s trying to attract donors, or trying to link with partners, it’s that you’re okay with it because it’s what you have to do to try to get to the next step. You have to take the time to work through that. You don’t want to just be about ‘mission accomplished.’ How you do it is about how it grows and about sustainability.”

Part of this way of working, of managing, is external to you as an individual: having the tools and structures to ensure good planning and strategy, fiscal management and oversight, legal compliance, organizational charts, etc. Part of this is internal: being willing to listen and to be changed by what one is hearing. Being able to hold two (or three or four) different ideas and work to discern how to move forward. Honoring what you know, your experience, being willing to acknowledge that others honor what they know and their experience, and to struggle together to come to a new way of knowing, a new experience, a new way forward. Dialogue, transparency and responsibility create the atmosphere where staff and those the organization is designed to serve can flourish. And sometimes fail because none of us run at 100 percent success. As a manager, it’s how you respond to success and failure, internally and externally, that makes the difference.

If we want to change the way the world looks, if we want to ensure greater equality, we may have to re-imagine vision and mission within the context of the process—the means part of means and ends, the how we get to the goal, and then determine what managing looks like when mission and process are rolled together. Do we want a process, a way of getting to the mission, that replicates the status quo? Or do we want a process in which change includes everyone—even us? Where the lines between helper and helped are diminished? Where people can solve their own problems—because problems are never going to stop, and at some point our organizations will close their doors, or we will retire, or pass from this world, and either someone will take over or the work will end. So why not create a system where you work to turn the problem-solving over to someone else? Include others in decision-making? Listen full-on? Really, it’s in your best interest. Think of all the things you could do if you didn’t have to work the incredible long hours you put into your current job.  Maybe a nice massage?

In the chapters following, I will describe the origins and history of the idea of ‘mission’, and why we need to reconsider the idea and function of mission in light of this history. Next we’ll take a look at the ideas behind the process of getting to the mission, and how the means can become the ends and vice versa. Then we’ll consider managing, what it means, the systems, structures and actions that make up the job and the importance of relationships. After that we’ll tie it all together, mission, managing and process, with some thought exercises and a couple of tools that might be helpful to you in your work. Lastly, we’ll look at ways forward.


Some of the terminology in Managing As Mission is a product of our acronym-crazy world, and I have tried to use full organizational names/titles as much as possible. When referring to the for-profit sector, I use ‘for-profit’, ‘corporation’ or ‘company’ synonymously, and do the same with the terms ‘nonprofit’ and ‘organization’. For the purpose of this book, nonprofits include organizations that would be categorized as a US-based 501(c)3, or an organization anywhere that does not have shareholders and is working toward a goal that is not profit-based.

While envisioning this book, I became acutely aware of two dilemmas. The first is whether the ideas presented are universal, or whether they reflect a northern/western orientation to managing, organizations and a better world. The second is that ‘a better world’ as defined by me may not be the ‘better world’ defined by all nonprofit groups or individuals in those groups. Regarding the first dilemma, the fact is that I am from the United States and have mainly managed staff and organizations based in the US albeit with an international reach. I have managed staff in other countries, and some of my most profound learnings on how to get to a mission have come from my work in other countries; these have become ingrained in the way I work and manage and it has become more and more difficult to tease them out over time. Knowing this, my hope is that you, the reader, will take what is useful to yourself and your context and forgive or let me know about my blind spots and any overreaching.

As for the second dilemma, my hope is that we can at least agree on the worth and dignity of each human being, as well as their internationally-agreed upon human rights as a starting point.

This book has been developed through multiple sources: structured interviews; stories told by nonprofit workers; people whom nonprofits have served; academic literature; blogs; and my own experiences. My hope is that by utilizing managing as a process to achieving the organizational mission, the means can become the ends on a day-to-day basis. From this genuine change on a small scale a better world, that works better for all, can be created.

So refill your cup and let’s go.


[1] This story is a compilation of stories told to me by people interviewed for this book. It is not linked to any one organization or person.

Managing As Mission: Nonprofit Managing for Sustainable Change. (2018). CRC Press: Florida US