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When the Problem You Solve Is the Problem You Have

Some imaginary situations:

  • An association that promotes international cooperation in an industry has, at long last, assembled a diverse, global board—whose members now can't get along.
  • The staff of an organization that promotes literacy receives regular emails from the Executive Director that are riddled with so many typos and so much opaque jargon that some people are starting to wonder how the ED got hired.
  • An association promoting green technologies has routine staff squabbles on its internal website about office recycling. What is that eco-friendly go-cup lid doing in the trash? Excuse me, but why did I just see a soda can in the mixed-papers bin?

If you'd asked me a while back if there were a term for this sort of thing, I might have just shrugged and said, "Uh, bitter irony?" But a recent edition of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly has set me straight. David Allyn, director of development for New Jersey SEEDS, calls the phenomenon "mission mirroring," a situation in which "organizations routinely become mired in internal conflicts that look eerily like the external problems they were founded to address." The main cause of mission mirroring, Allyn argues, is that stakeholders are hyperaware of the kind of issue they've come together to fix, so that very same issue has a way of bubbling up more often in staff and board interactions.

I'm not entirely sold on the idea. The single case study Allyn addresses is anonymous and a little too on-the-nose: conflict at an organization whose mission is conflict resolution. (It's a doozy of an internal conflict, though: "At one donor event," Allyn writes, "two guests nearly came to blows over the use of a chair.") But it doesn't strike me as unthinkable, either. Moreover, Allyn argues that awareness of mission mirroring should be an essential part of its work, to forestall such conflicts down the line. Organizations that do so will be "less likely to get trapped in vicious cycles of accusation and reprisal," he writes.

Have you ever experienced (or even heard of) a case of mission mirroring? Is simply acknowledging the problem quite enough to help fix it?

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Comments

This is an interesting post. It makes me think of a local women's advocacy organization offers great programs and services for all kinds of people in need in my community. They say that their mission is twofold: to empower women by getting them on corporate boards and to eliminate discrimination in every form. Unfortunately, they don't allow men on their board of directors and to me, that's the ultimate hypocrisy, for two reasons. One, it is the very discrimination their own mission is fighting against, and two, if you look at who has the voting power on corporate boards in the world, not just the United States, it is men. It doesn't mean they're bad or good, it's just it is what it is. So if you want to empower women and eliminate discrimination, you have to start with your own organization. Sometimes we get too insular at our organizations and need to seek outside perspectives to keep fresh.

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