A Story of Cookies and Nonprofit Mission Creep

Girl Scout Cookies and Nonprofit Fundraising

For some individuals, January brings resolutions to start doing something good for themselves or to stop doing something bad. For organizations including nonprofits, it may mean a new strategic plan or an updated program of work. If you live in the Greater Atlanta area as I do, January brings something else: Girl Scout Cookies®!

Why do Girl Scouts sell cookies? To raise money, of course! Since the first cookie sale in 1917 in Muscogee, Oklahoma, it has been a tasty and effective way for Girl Scouts across the nation to fundraise; however, you might be surprised to find out that it is not the primary reason. Selling cookies only to raise money would be a step on the slippery slope of mission creep.

According to Sylvia Acevedo, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, Girl Scout Cookie sales are, first and foremost, a service project that teaches sales and marketing skills. Mission alignment was a priority in the development and evolution of this massive annual event. If the cookie sales did not directly contribute to the Girl Scout’s mission of “building girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place,” there would be no more Thin Mints or Samoas.

We need cookies, not crumbs!

Nonprofits have long relied on galas, golf tournaments, and other similar events to raise money. These events can bring in revenue and often provide the organization an effective way to tell its story, but do those tactics truly move the mission forward? If you believe your nonprofit’s mission would be better served with time and resources spent elsewhere, take an honest look at expenses that encompass overhead costs, in particular, the value of staff and volunteer time needed to produce the event.  With all costs included, the event may not raise that much revenue or may even be operating at a loss. The event looks like a box of cookies, but when you open it up, it really is just crumbs.

At one Chamber of Commerce I ran, we took a close look at the true cost of programs, and it showed that our ribbon cutting program lost money. Not only that, the renewal rate of new businesses using the program was significantly less than the overall new member renewal rate. We changed the program to significantly reduce the number of ribbon cuttings booked and put our volunteers to work on member retention. The result in changing staff and volunteer focus was a positive impact on revenue because we experienced nearly a 20 percent increase in new member retention.

If the revenues significantly outweigh the true costs and you are unable to eliminate the event, perhaps you can look for opportunities to better align it with your mission. For example, the last golf tournament in which I participated was for the local Boy Scouts Council. It was a fun event but would have been much more impactful if they had Boy Scouts participating as part of a service project to learn about community leaders.

I know you want a cookie, but how about this nice lump of coal?

Those of us who have run nonprofits or have been in charge of business development have all been there. We’ve sat in front of a potentially large investor that wants the organization to implement or put more focus on a program or event that does little or nothing for mission fulfillment. Similarly, a large grant for a project not aligned with the mission may help the organization’s revenue line, but restricted funding pulls resources away from core services.

The risk of losing the investor is real but staying focused on the long haul of mission delivery versus the short-term is critical for long-term success.  Jim Collins talks about nonprofit mission creep in his 2005 monograph “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” Collins recognizes potential challenges nonprofits may have with restricted funding and states, “Restricted giving misses a fundamental point: to make the greatest impact on society requires first and foremost a great organization, not a single great program.”

The nonprofit should strive to fulfill its mission. While funding is important to implement a mission, it is not the mission. Go for the cookies!

If you need help aligning your “cookies” with your mission, contact the experts at Convergent Nonprofit Solutions. Our fundraising experts will help you develop an approach that will help make your organization’s mission happen. Reach out to our nonprofit professionals to get started today!

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