Mission Motivation and Why It Matters

Philadelphia, Wilmington, & Baltimore Railroad Turnbridge, Philadelphia, PA

The nonprofit sector is home to a staggering diversity of missions and purposes, but there are just two archetypal origins that inspire mission, or mission motivations. Missions are either primarily motivated by external or internal forces to the individual or group defining the mission. The category your mission falls into may help explain some of the inequities in funding you encounter as well as the manner in which you argue impact, build a resource model, think about scale, and build capacity.

Missions are either exogenous, literally meaning “generated from external factors”, or endogenous because they are “generated by internal factors”. Here, “internal” and “external” are roughly defined relative to the person or group that is driving the charitable or tax-exempt purpose. Is the mission responding to an objective human problem on the landscape, conceptually external to those behind the mission, such as housing the homeless in Philadelphia, curing people with COVID-19 in Seattle, or educating the children of Boston? Or is the mission defined by a more subjective, personal (either individual or group) set of values or aspirations, such as the work of an artist or collective, the beliefs of a faith-based community, or the political advocacy goals of a marginalized group?

Of course, these two mission motivations are never “pure” in form, as the above comparison might imply. All mission motivations involve some manner of both endogenous and exogenous motivation. Also, the difference between the two can’t be reduced to the difference between quantitative and qualitative measures.  It is impossible to reduce education, healthcare, or human services to metrics that everyone agrees on. Subjective views and interpretive work are part of the deal. Similarly, the advocacy goals of a marginalized community certainly have subjective motivations. But there is also massive and undeniable quantitative evidence describing the systemic marginalization of communities of color in America and around the world. 

So why are these two archetypal mission motivations important to consider?

The below comparison sets the stage for the answers to this question. Highlighted are some of the key differences between the two and why we need to be aware of the differences when approaching everything from funding and public policy, to defining impact and building capacity.

Exogenous missions:

  • Focus on a clear, often quantifiable, “external” problem or goal; 
  • Hold more methods, strategies, or theories of change in common with like-missioned peers;
  • Consider scale relative to the resources needed to address the quantifiable problem;
  • Seek more program-motivated mergers or acquisitions when considering restructuring;
  • Examples include healthcare, human services, education, science, and research.

Endogenous missions:

  • Focus on a clear, but more idiocentric (individual or collective) purpose or goal;
  • Engage practices, methods, and programs that are very distinct from mission to mission;
  • Consider scale relative to individual or collective satisficing dynamics – what is “enough”;
  • Seek more back-office-motivated mergers or acquisitions when considering restructuring;
  • Examples include arts and culture, religion, mindfulness, and areas of advocacy.

We greatly privilege exogenous missions over endogenous ones in most areas of the tax-exempt sector, exacerbating inequities in everything from private funding to public support.

There is comparatively more funding (private and government) for education and human services, for example, than arts and culture and religion. Giving USA Foundation’s 2018 data for the exogenous categories of Environment, Healthcare, Public Benefit, Human Services, and Education account for 46% of all giving, whereas the endogenous categories of Arts & Culture and Religion account for 34%. Looking at just donor advised funds (for the period I could find, 2012-2015) and for the same mission areas an even greater difference appears, representing more the values of individual donors: 65% to exogenous missions and 22% to endogenous missions.

In our contemporary science-centered world, we privilege exogenous missions, largely owing to their ability to more quantitatively define the problem they are addressing and demonstrate impact. They appear easier to grasp, are based in more tangible metrics, and are less subject to political or cultural divisiveness. They also seem to fit neatly into bullets and one-pagers for the politician, foundation president, or corporate CEO. Endogenous missions are messier, their value harder to quantify. They resist both an objective and market rationale, which we valorize in the quantitative thrall that both science and the free-market hold over us. Only what we can count counts. 

We find the more subjective motivations of endogenous missions downright discomforting. One of the greatest contradictions of our contemporary, neo-liberal society is that we celebrate radical individualism and vision in the private sector, but often condemn it in the nonprofit sector. It’s ok for someone to start a private company around their “personal vision”, because the invisible hand of the market will ultimately sort things out. The idea that someone might start a nonprofit and consume public funds for purely endogenous motivations smacks of self-indulgence and irresponsible use of public goods. Yet, the nearly 110,000 arts and culture organizations operating today in the U.S. would not exist otherwise. This is one of the reasons, I think, we find it so hard to justify support for the arts in our country. 

Exogenous and endogenous missions have very different approaches to defining impact, building “business” models, scaling, and repositioning. Misapplying the models of one to the other can lead to a great deal of damage and waste in our sector.

Equally critical to the matter of funding inequity is the consideration of how we think about philanthropic investment in capacity building, impact models, scaling strategy, and nonprofit restructuring or “repositioning” across the two kinds of mission. 

Following the quantitative leanings of exogenous missions and the more qualitative nature of endogenous motives, impact models are also very different across the two. For exogenous missions, more transactional metrics can ground an impact model: the number of homeless housed, sick cured, or children educated, not to the exclusion of accompanying qualitative measures. For endogenous missions, the application of quantitative measures is more elusive, and when we do find them, they are hard to generalize or render consistent from organization to organization. Defining and measuring the value of things like arts and culture, wellbeing, and participation in intentional, faith-based communities is a perennial challenge for the sector, and perhaps rightfully so. 

Likewise, exogenous missions tend toward more transactional “business” models with either private funders/donors (such as impact philanthropy and investment) or government (in the form of subsidy that is calibrated against disburdening government from services it might otherwise need to provide). Endogenous missions tend toward cooperative or “intentional community” business models, wherein contributors are participants in the artistic work or faith community. The value proposition behind tithing in faith communities bears closer resemblance to donor relations in the arts community than either community would probably like to admit. Both entail soliciting contributions in exchange for participating in an experience that is built on identity, values, and benefits of wellbeing.

With differences in resource model come differences in scaling potential and approach. Exogenous missions tend to scale relative to the problem they have identified. If your mission is to eradicate homelessness in the Station North area of Baltimore, then the scale of your program and budget should meet the number of homeless that need to be housed in that area. Exogenous missions are largely in the business of driving a number higher (kids educated) or lower (people suffering from a disease). In contrast, endogenous missions neither scale to an external problem (art solves no “problem” in this sense) nor to a “market”, as is often assumed in the case of the arts, for example. I maintain that endogenous missions scale according to individual and collective satisficing (yes, that’s spelled correctly). Satisficing is the social and psychological study of how humans decide what is enough–why is one person satisfied with a tiny house and another a mansion? The size of most artistic missions and practices, as well as the size of many intentional communities of faith is more a factor of what the leadership deem “enough” or their “right size” than any market or problem-solving pressure.

Finally, these two mission archetypes have an affect on approach to repositioning, namely whether the focus of repositioning is predominantly program-facing (about compounding the impact or scale of problem solving) or back-office-facing (leaving the mission and program alone, but consolidating back-end functions). Because exogenous missions share more common impact models and external problems from organization to organization, merging program-facing functions can make sense. Two housing nonprofits in Station North may be able to accelerate their path to eliminating homelessness working together than separate. The idiocentric nature of the arts, in contrast, resists merging based purely on mission: merging two theatres does not just produce “more theatre” for half the effort. It likely means the destruction of two unique visions. For endogenous missions, focusing on back-office functions may be a more coherent route. 

I hope to delve into more detail in all four of the above propositions relating to impact assessment, business model, scaling strategy, and repositioning approach in other posts. But I hope the above brief comments start to elucidate why consciousness of the differences in mission motivation matter. To  impose impact models for health and human services on arts organizations is a fool’s errand and a waste of time and money, though I have seen this time and again. Trying to compel two dance companies to merge just because they share the discipline of dance or an assumed audience makes no sense–each is defined by a unique vision and different relationship of value to their audiences. Resource and philanthropic investment models for human services and arts diverge greatly. 

In sum, it is important to resist the temptation to apply strategies and models native to exogenous missions to endogenous missions, just because exogenous missions better fit our instrumentalist, scientific, and free-market cultural values. We need to be able to set aside exogenous values and be willing to embrace different definitions of impact and “success” when addressing other mission motivations. All mission motivations may not be created equal in the American mind, but the more care we apply to the differences in motive, the closer we may come to an ethical and equitable treatment of mission overall in our sector.