All governmental organizations and NGOs are founded by well-meaning actors with good intentions. However, corruption inevitably sets in as the “good intentions” are gradually eclipsed by the inevitable organizational impulse to survive and self-perpetuate. Institutions, like organisms, seek survival for themselves and their descendants. They survive, reproduce, replace, predate, evolve, alter, consume and grow. And when a sufficient number of institutions coexist, they function like an ecosystem.
The instinct of self-preservation is in the DNA of all living organisms and exaggerated in human organizations.
“Ship, shipmate, self. I’ve always found this refrain from the Navy to be powerful… On any high-performing team I’ve been a part of, putting mission first, and team before self, was always key to collective success. The worst behaviors in organizations, in my experience, are those that get this approach backwards. When the collective mentality of any organization is self and self-preservation first, it’s a sure sign of pending doom.” – Chris Fussell in Fortune Magazine.
“When an institution serves itself rather than its mission, it often destroys what it ostensibly seeks to defend.” – Jim Schaffer
In the article “The Damaging Impact of Self=Preservation and How To Reverse it” they looked at self preservation and leadership this way: “Self-preservation runs opposed to the qualities of leaders worth following. Through behaviors and actions promoting the mentality of self-interest, leaders disempower or overpower those they lead instead of encouraging, equipping and empowering their success. The ugly byproduct of the self-interested leader is a culture of resentment held deeply across the organization that limits the oxygen of growth and advancement for others.“
We must all be conscious of this natural impulse, especially those of us who work in social services and the nonprofit sector. It is critical that we guard against making decisions that sustain our status-quo but do not benefit clients in our care. There is often a fine line separating what is good for mission and what is good for organizational self-preservation. The line is crossed gradually not suddenly. Decisions to utilize funds to bolster the stability of an organization are often justified as mission-centric.
- “We need a CEO that has an industry-wide reputation in order to impress donors. We have to pay more to get one. It is money well spent.”
- “Our professional staff demands a more robust benefits package. If we don’t supply it, we will lose them to the competition.”
- “Our headquarters is overcrowded and shabby. It’s time to build our own impressive headquarters building.”
The three examples above are familiar discussions at growing nonprofit board meetings. They represent the gradual, unintentional blurring between organizational self-preservation and mission-centric points-of-view. This confluence of purpose haunts every nonprofit in the world. Only sophisticated and dedicated boards can tell when the line has been crossed. Every nonprofit board is responsible to police itself by vigilantly auditing its strategic and tactical plan. To that end, let's close with another look at Jim Schaffer’s remark:
“When an institution serves itself rather than its mission, it often destroys what it ostensibly seeks to defend.”