Exploring the origins, ethics and future of changemaking

The ethical alignment of mission, strategy and investment

In Ethics on July 23, 2012 at 11:48 am

I had an interesting conversation the other day with Nick Moraitis about the ethics and alignment of mission, strategy and investment in social change. Very often social entrepreneurs will possess incredibly ambitious goals about what they want to achieve. This may include eliminating poverty, stopping global warming, or reducing unemployment amongst a certain part of the population.

As Nick pointed out to me, there can often be massive gaps between the mission that is pursued, activities that are taken to achieve that and the budgets that exist to fulfill that mission. Is it ethical to set a goal that is grossly unachievable and selling that unattainable mission to beneficiaries, funders or supporters?

This lack of alignment between mission, strategy and investment is very common, and not necessarily because of any deliberate intent to mislead. In my experience there are a number of factors that contribute to this including a culture of inflating possibility, lack of skills in business planning, poor design processes and a lack of external reference checks around mission.

In terms of skill gaps there is a general lack of understanding of what it actually costs to achieve change. For me I was raised in the school of doing things on the cheap. I have become adept at finding free or low cost ways of achieving change at a local level, and have been involved in a bunch of initiatives that have done just that. I have less experience in working on complex global problems that require heavy financial investment and multidimensional strategies to achieve the mission. If I was to pursue the solving of a complex global problem, I personally would need a lot of external input in the design of an appropriate strategy and budget.

Finding an accurate correlation between mission, strategy and resources is important. Understanding the kinds of investment that will or may be required to fulfill a certain change project is a critical step in the ideation and business planning process. The question is: do you downsize your mission to something that is achievable within your resources or experience? or do you get an accurate assessment of the resources that are required to fulfill the mission and go for that? My sense is that it lies somewhere between the two.

A number of years ago I had a guy pitch to me a project to establish an international school for gifted young people. His philosophy and idea seemed fascinating and well-researched from an educational perspective, although when asked how much this would cost, he boldly replied – $10 billion over 10 years. At first I asked, ‘do you mean $10 million?’, only to receive the reply that no, it was in fact $10 billion. He talked me through the scale of the project and how he arrived at that cost. I didn’t so much dispute the cost, but the moment I started backing out the door was when I asked him what his $1 million plan was, and he said that it wasn’t worth doing for any less than $10 billion.

On a level his ethics were totally aligned. He wasn’t underestimating the cost of his mission, and was not prepared to pursue something unless he had the ‘right’ level of investment. He was acting transparently and passionately, although with my judgement added to the mix – a little naively. He did however fail to get critical feedback and input from people with experience in budgeting such initiatives. As such he was not prepared to adjust his strategy to the resources that could have been available to him. He wasn’t prepared to find a way to pilot the project at a much lower cost.

The Australian Indigenous Education Foundation (AIEF) is a good example of a project that did do thorough homework around the mission and cost to achieve it. It set about to achieve a significant level of investment from government and corporate partners to deliver the mission it stated. It has not only achieved this in upfront funding, but managed to design and implement a funding model that will secure its ability to deliver on its mission over the long-term. Their plan was ambitious yet realistic, and also kept their management costs to a minimum.

In my view, the most striking example of this lack of alignment is in the ‘make poverty history’ field. There are a number of programs, campaigns and organisations that have been set up over the years to eliminate or significantly reduce global poverty. While the goal may be very noble, the complexity of the problem is extraordinary. Many of these initiatives also do very little to address directly matters of global poverty. Most of the activities that these organisations engage in are fundraising, education or awareness raising. I am not being critical of these activities actually – raising consciousness around particular issues is valid, ethical and important. I simply question when the activity does not have explicit alignment with the publicly stated mission. Would it not be more ethical to declare that the mission is to raise awareness around matters of global poverty. It is not surprising that while a number of these organisations have been established in the last five years, there are many that have been around for 20+ years without seeing any notable change to global poverty.

Aligning mission, strategy and investment is a matter of entrepreneurial integrity. Understanding the complexity of the problem and establishing a theory of change that is logical, achievable and aligned is important. Understanding the financial side of business planning can be very tricky if one does not have experience in this domain. Being able to appropriately cost an initiative and get a clear idea of how much it will take to achieve a mission is also critically important. To over-commit on a mission only breeds doubt and mistrust in the initiative from potential backers and the community it seeks to serve.

But the news isn’t all bad. There are many people out there with the skills and experience in this work, and a growing sense of importance around each of these areas – mission, strategy and investment. Bringing these into alignment is vital if pursuing a more ethical approach to ‘doing good’.

Nick Moraitis is amongst other things a Co-Founder of The Centre for Australian Progress and Make Believe.

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