The Trouble with "Passion for the Mission" . . . editor notes issue #84

"Passion for the mission is a must" . . . so say many job announcements and board member requirement lists. Wait a minute. Let's examine this sacred cow cliche a little more.

First, is "passion for the mission" enough to make someone a good board member, good executive, good staffperson? Of course not. Someone may have a deep passion for children's health, yet not be interested in a particular pediatric clinic or a toxics prevention organization. So we know that passion isn't enough.

But is passion even necessary? Is it really an important first screen through which candidates must pass?

Actually, all of us have small embers glowing within us for many, many causes. We care about children's health, about the disappearance of small bookstores, about icecap melting, about human trafficking, about seed diversity, about freedom of the press. When the right breath blows on an ember, it flares into a burning passion.

But it's not exactly "passion for the mission." For most nonprofit staff and volunteers, it's closer to passion for the success of this organization and the work it does. In fact, as volunteers we are often surprised by how much we find ourselves caring about an organization and the people involved with it. We find we have joined a community of shared values and dreams, and we care tremendously about that community.

So let's skip the over-used "passion for the mission" and instead look for -- and recognize in ourselves -- caring about the work of the nonprofit we are involved with and the people it affects. Let's look for board members are staff who have embers for the mission, and remember that it takes time and circumstance for an ember to burst into flame. And finally, let's remember that a passion flower can remind us of the passion of Christ, a clock (Middle East), or the Wheel of Fate (Turkey). Or it can simply be a beautiful flower that awakens affection and delight within us.

* With all the talk about leadership development, it's good to have in this issue a straightforward approach from Kirk Kramer. We've also got "The Founding Fathers Write a Grant Proposal," a discussion of "Ten Mistakes Boards and Executives Make," and a heart-felt First Person Nonprofit from an executive finding a stance towards life. Oh, and a 3-minute vacation to an Oscar-nominated, amazingly clever film featuring avocados. Enjoy. -- Jan Masaoka

Comments (12)

  • Hello Blue Avocado,

    I posted a recent article titled "A young professional’s advice for soon-to-be grads in the new sector." It touches on the interest among young professionals in consulting and foundation work, which you have written about in several articles. I just wanted let you know I gave Blue Avocado a shoutout because I love your content. Chris Lloyd, Taproot Foundation

    Feb 10, 2013
  • I really love your site. It's a great addition to the public benefit sector dialogue. Kevin Murphy

    Feb 10, 2013
  • Interesting comment Jan - it is also important to guard against "passion for the leader" so that board members understand wanting the organization to succeed vs. wanting the CEO to succeed. Colleen Bozard, ccbozard consulting

    Feb 12, 2013
  • I appreciate your perspective against full-fledged passion for the mission as a job entry criterion, but don't agree that it should be replaced with passion for the organization. In fact, I feel that one of the problems with the nonprofit sector is too much organization mindedness & not enough focus on social change & social justice. Organizational thinking leads to status quo for the people we care about. As a director, I care most about those employees who challenge us all to do better, do differently, not just do more. Mission minded forever!

    Feb 12, 2013
  • Loved the article. Also, wonderful shot of a passion fruit flower!

    Feb 12, 2013
  • I enjoyed your Editor's Note, The Trouble with "Passion for the Mission." I have had the same reaction to the job announcements described.

    Have you noticed a similar almost universal call for "charismatic" leaders in the wanted ads? Does charisma really equal competency?

    You may enjoy a note I recently posted on that "sacred cow cliche."


    Feb 12, 2013
  • I agree with your post for the most part... but in my experience, in a small organization, if just a few key people are NOT passionate about the mission... let's say the Executive Director, and perhaps the head of the board.... then the direction of the organization can very quickly make a 180 degree turn away from its mission, especially if it is chasing dollars.

    Feb 12, 2013
  • These are all good points. I over-stated the case. Thanks, Blue Avocado readers, for keeping me honest. Jan

    Feb 12, 2013
  • Good insight.

    Feb 13, 2013
  • Human motivation is very complicated: reliable volunteers may have a variety of reasons. Some may have a passion for the mission, some may feel passionate about the organization, and some, though they care about the mission, are volunteering because they saw a need for their services. This last case is often the result of a passion to do good which is not specific to the organization or the particular mission. Though they may be harder to convince to take the job, these people are no less reliable than the former two classes as long as the need is there. I know of many instances in which the most valuable person in a particular position (e.g., Treasurer) in the history of an organization was someone who did not want the job but felt a duty to take it.

    Feb 16, 2013
  • Thank you Jan. Your direct and practical advice is a blessing. I am taking notes!

    Feb 17, 2013

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