Stretching Organizational Mission to Increase Community Impact

Sustained business growth and success requires strategic risk-taking.

Companies look to expand their markets, products, and customer base to remain relevant and profitable. They are forward and progressive in their outlook and strategy. That’s what corporate “Research and Development” is about a strategy and effort to remain on the cutting edge of knowledge relating to their product or industry and, in the process, stay one step ahead of their competitors.

Inherent in any R&D effort is a degree of risk. Effective business leaders understand and accept a certain number of failed initiatives because they know that they will become stagnant if they don’t take strategic risks that push the envelope. They also know that even in failure, there are lessons learned that can lead to future success.

In other words, strategic risk-taking fuels business progress and growth. 

If strategic risk-taking can spur organizational vitality and growth for for-profit businesses, why are Community Benefit Organizations (CBOs) so risk-averse? Granted, the definitions of “success” for for-profit companies (financial profit) and CBOs (community impact) are different. That said, the means by which CBOs succeed are, in fact, the same as for-profit businesses. In other words, CBOs must make money to be able to make a difference.

So why shouldn’t CBOs take strategic risks or engage in programs or initiatives that “stretch” or test the limits of their mission? If strategic risk-taking is necessary for for-profit businesses to remain vibrant, current, and profitable, why would that be different for CBOs? This is not to imply that risk-taking should be open-ended. Risks must be strategic and should connect tangibly to the organizational mission. That said, a case can be made that it is more important for CBOs to take strategic risks because of the community needs they are attempting to address, from homelessness, food insecurity, educational reform, environmental degradation, or public health, to name only a few, are more critically important from a societal and community well-being standpoint than a businesses’ need to generate profits.

Here’s the problem.

In the case of a business, taking strategic risks designed to enhance profit is considered smart. However, if risks are taken by CBOs and fail, regardless of the knowledge gained during the process, the organization is viewed as acting irresponsibly as stewards of donors’ contributions. But is that any more irresponsible than remaining uncompromisingly glued to the same programs, strategies, and outcomes year after year, mainly when operating in a rapidly changing world where the issues and challenges CBOs are working to address are increasingly more complex and critical? If CBOs don’t take strategic risks and push the boundaries of their missions, they, too, will become stagnant and unable to capitalize on the opportunities presented by such challenges. Yes, some risks may fail. But when they do, you learn from them, move on, and apply the lessons learned to future endeavors. This seems like a reasonable price to pay for an opportunity to break boundaries that might result in transformative change and community impact.

Think of organizational mission as a living cell with boundaries that can be nudged, prodded, and, when necessary, punctured rather than an organism with hard, concrete boundaries. One suggests flexibility and awareness of changing needs and circumstances, while the other suggests inflexible, head-in-the-sand thinking.

In other words, the ability of CBOs to be nimble, flexible, and able to adjust and respond to rapidly changing challenges is critical. This requires poking and prodding at the limits of, or “stretching,” organizational mission and operations.

But what does “strategic risk” look like for CBOs?

Here’s an example.

Music For Everyone ( is a CBO I founded in 2006 with a mission to cultivate the power of music in Lancaster, PA. Like many CBOs, businesses, and community groups, in 2020, we were faced with the challenge of responding to the widespread unrest that resulted from the George Floyd murder. Many organizations and businesses responded by writing a social justice statement, placing a Black Lives Matter sign on their front window, and thinking that this response was adequate. While we did write a social justice statement, we had to do more. The explosion of civil unrest that boiled over after the killing forced us to consider how we might leverage our resources and music’s power and potential to meet our mission in the context of these current events.

In such a racially charged environment, the risks of taking the issue of social and racial justice head-on were significant. Would embracing this highly emotional and explosive issue alienate our donors? As a very visible public organization, any missteps (and there were several along the way) would be magnified. In doing so, would we open ourselves up to increased scrutiny regarding exactly how diverse our organization truly was?

The fundamental questions were, “How does this fit into our mission?” And second, “Were we willing to place all the effort and progress we had made in building the organization over fifteen years at risk by embarking on this endeavor?”

In the end, our choice was clear. First, music has been at the center of every human rights and social justice movement in the history of mankind. Couple that with the fact that most of the students and families we serve consist of people of color, only intensified that feeling of responsibility to act in a concrete and meaningful way. In short, we had to “stretch” and evolve our mission in response to the challenges of our times.

As a result, MFE’s Songs for Justice was born.

SFJ is a convergence of music, spoken word, visual art, poetry, history, and discussion questions into an ongoing series of vinyl 45 records. Each record includes inspiring and educational information and resources to stimulate dialogue, healing, and change. They feature various leaders, events, and narratives around an array of civil and human rights causes and issues. Each record also identifies a particular ethnic or cultural theme or group, such as the BLM movement, LGBTQ+, women’s issues, or a particular issue relating to social justice, such as criminal justice reform. Finally, we partner with CBOs that are doing good work on these issues by providing a platform to highlight their work.

We are now six volumes and counting into this journey, and the results and benefits to MFE have been transformative. 

As we began to strategize regarding what such an initiative might look like, it became clear that we had to take an unvarnished, honest look in the mirror before we did anything. How could we think about establishing any outward-facing initiative regarding racial justice without first inwardly examining our organization regarding our own diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and profile? Such self-reflection can reveal uncomfortable truths when, after such honest self-examination, you find you might not be living up to the standards and ideals you profess to believe in and act upon.

Thus began a 360-degree review of our policies, procedures, and bylaws seeking to diversify the organization strategically. We found that while we have had POC on our board, we were not directional and strategic regarding our diversity efforts, from our board and committee structure to the vendors we used and the musicians and artists we hired.

It’s been an interesting and challenging journey. Perhaps the most important lesson we’ve learned is that once you commit to lean into organizational diversity, it is an ongoing commitment and challenge rather than a journey with a definitive ending. It required us to be strategic and directed in identifying potential contributors to the project. For the program to succeed, we had to cast a wide net, from musicians to visual artists, poets to graphic designers, photographers to historians and community activists. Many of the contributors were young POC emerging in their fields who had not had much exposure to a wide audience. Given MFE’s high visibility in the community, being a part of the SFJ project helped raise their community profile. This was particularly important as POC make up about half of Lancaster City’s population. 

And while these contributors benefitted from their involvement, MFE benefitted as well. SFJ expanded our “roster” of contacts in all these areas so we could tap for future projects, services, events, and potential board and committee members. Our community events, which featured mostly white musicians and artists, now feature musicians and artists from various races, cultures, and backgrounds. The various businesses and vendors we use have also become more diverse and closer to reflecting the wide diversity of our community, as has our board and committee membership.

Given the highly emotional stakes and risks in wading into those turbulent waters, we have seen no downturn in general giving. We have also been able to raise the money to continue to produce these records in the foreseeable future. Apparently, rather than our donor base and community criticizing or distancing themselves from this project and MFE’s efforts to highlight issues relating to diversity and racial justice, it appears that our community has embraced those efforts. Perhaps this is proof that if you are willing to take some strategic risks and your heart and aim are true in undertaking them, others in the community will support your efforts to do the right thing.

So, was there a risk in stretching our organizational mission and programming to achieve a more significant community impact through SFJ? Of course. Was there risk in creating the impression that we were wasteful and “taking our eye off the ball” in applying organizational resources in this way? Absolutely. However, in a rapidly changing world of increasingly complex societal challenges, CBOS must be proactive and willing to assume a measure of strategic risk to remain vibrant, relevant, and effective in producing positive community impact.

 In short, whether for for-profit businesses or CBOs, progress requires strategic risk-taking.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top