When the Going Gets Tough...The Tough Focus on Mission


Raise your hand if these have been tough times for you and your organization? Leading in tumultuous times requires an extraordinary demeanor. When staring down pandemics, national instability, revenue reductions, increased need, and all the other typical challenges, a Nonprofit Leader has an essential tool in their holster. In crisis, it is the time to focus on your MISSION. When the going gets tough, a tough leader focuses on the mission of the organization. 

Nonprofit leaders have a job much tougher than their for-profit counterparts in business. In a typical business, the bottom line is profit. You have to make money. Whatever a company says it does, it has a product or service to achieve profit. Nike, Turbo Tax, Exxon, Apple, What business are they in? Shoes? Tax Preparation? Oil and Gas? Technology? No, ultimately, they are in the business of making a profit.

Nonprofit leaders have a double bottom line. You have the revenue-producing activity (Fundraising), and that is likely a totally separate business than the other bottom line, which is your MISSION!

So, we are going to focus on one of your bottom lines, MISSION.

Take a minute to think about your organization’s mission statement. Maybe even write it down…

The director’s role in championing the mission:

I am on a Facebook group with thousands of nonprofit leaders from around the country and last week there was another director jumping on there, and her post said something to the effect of… “I lead a homeless organization and I need help with my board because they just want to talk about business. They just don’t get it. They aren’t with the homeless people I serve. What do I do about my board that is so business-minded?”

The many responses from colleagues were on point…Most reflected messages of, “You should be grateful your board is thinking about the business.”  “Your job as the ED is to remind them of the mission,” and share your passion, and share client stories, but the healthier your business the better your mission is going to be fulfilled. You are the torchbearer to the mission and carry it uniquely.

Having a cause is easy...but being on a mission is a different thing. It is intentional, strategic, active, and takes sacrifice.

So this year has brought its own unique challenges. Nonprofits have responded in so many different ways. The usual response when you go through a tough time is to freeze. It can be immobilizing to face difficulty. Two reactions to tough situations… Thrive or Flounder.

There are difficulties directly related to covid-19, such as not assembling large groups or staff not coming into work. Needs have increased, donations may or may not have increased.

A popular American English proverb,  “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” means “when the situation becomes difficult,  strong people can step up and handle it.” This proverb is also attributed to both John F. Kennedy’s father and the American football coach, K. Rockne. Billy Ocean’s homonymous song also popularised it.


“When the going gets tough, the tough focus on mission.”


What can your mission do for your organization?


1 | It can help you inspire and motivate your team.

Most of your team are there because they value the mission your organization does. Even the best staff and board can lose sight of the big picture when things are difficult. What may be to one person an inspirational task becomes a check-box and hard work for those who day-in and day-out are doing the hard work. It sounds romantic to feed the hungry, but the person working the forklifts and doing the bookkeeping needs to be connected back to the mission over and over again. Talking about, writing about, and telling the story of your mission can motivate your team. Tough times are THE time to show appreciation to your team for their work to accomplish the mission. 


2 | It can help you inspire and motivate your donors.

One of the challenges in tough times is communication. For one there is a lot of communication regarding other news drowning out your messages. It also can seem uncomfortable “asking for money” when there are tough times going on. The truth is the biggest mistake you can make in tough times is going radio silent. Use your mission statement as guidance for your communication. I saw a nonprofit pediatric medical organization use their mission in a great way on a commercial. The commercial acknowledged this has been a tough year, but then it spent the bulk of the message reminding viewers of the important work they do and the heart gripping children they serve. They ended the spot with another statement acknowledging the needs of COVID, but that even more their mission was valuable at this time. Cue the wallets opening!

Use your mission to inspire your audience.

Communicate more than you ever have. Yes more! 

Tell stories of the work you are doing

Focus on what is happening and not what is missing in your services


3 | It can help you know when to say no.

There are times you need to say no to ideas as a leader. Your mission should be a filter for that. Some organizations have gotten more robust this year by saying no to some of their secondary goals. Most organizations have their bread and butter service they do best and no one else around them provides. In a tough time look to your mission to tell you what is most essential. If you have to cut back, start with those things that support but don’t necessarily fulfill the mission. If you have staff that work on services that have to stop or are limited, redirect them to work on essential services. No one sits on their hands! Even beyond a tough time, using the skill of saying no can help you use resources in effective ways. If you are feeling strapped it is possible you have extended the organization beyond its essential mission.

Be the very best at what most closely fulfills your mission.

Reallocate staff and money towards what services can and should be provided.

Find referral partners for those areas that are important but not your primary mission.

4 | It can guide you when to say yes.

Most importantly your focus on the mission will help you know when to say, “Yes!” It is because of mission you are willing to work exhaustingly, expend resources, and give of your time to important and needed work. In tough times there are certain services that are so important to your mission they compel you to keep going despite the cost. It was wonderful to hear of organizations making adjustments to fulfill services this last year. 

One colleague who leads a pregnancy center had every excuse to close the center, but instead remained open for clinic visits and took the classes online for virtual parenting education. The clinic experienced consistently busy appointments as so many other maternal health offices were closed and the class attendance skyrocketed from averaging 10 persons to having 70 in attendance for courses online. Saying YES to their mission was a big win for their clients.


This year nonprofits took their counseling services to virtual while others transitioned their food pantries from indoor shopping to outdoor car distribution. Leaders said YES to mission and when things were tough they focused in and took care of business. When you say YES to the mission there is a way to win for your agency!

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