The Most Acceptable Reason for Tension Between Mission and Margin  

Photo credit to About Manchester

Combining a deep purpose with a business model creates a dynamic tension between the mission you serve and the margin of profitability that you need to keep going.  Which is the lifeblood of your organization — your purpose or your funding?   

On one hand, the money you make is the power, fuel and reach you have to impact your cause.  On the other hand, money-making activities take energy and focus away from directly serving the causes that matter to you most.  So how do social entrepreneurs, and mission-driven professionals, resolve the tension between mission and margin?  

They regularly and thoughtfully consider the implications of how and where they spend their time and the focus that drives their decision-making.  For example, individual careers balance the same dynamic when faced with a decision between a higher paying job that isn’t as enjoyable, and one where you make a difference but the pay is less.  

Here are some of the common challenges and strategies as you navigate your path through the creative tension of mission and margin, and explore ways to succeed in both areas as you create positive change in the world.  And, my story about how the ‘numbers’ — the money — was key to making this all work together.   

You’ll see that there is a great opportunity in the works for your journey here.   

Do you feel the tension?

Many social entrepreneurs can describe in exhaustive detail the scale of change they would create and the ways they would help their clients if only they had the funding to do so.  It’s easy to see this point of view.  A charitable work needs funding to support it; and when money is available to pay for salaries, research, branding, equipment, and space so much more is possible!  

woman holding one hundred dollar bills

Image via ZDnet

Yet, we have also witnessed the dangers of ‘throwing money at a problem’ without really addressing the fundamental questions of how a venture will work, and whether the vision of those who started it actually aligns with the reality of what it takes to serve those it is meant to benefit. 

Do you feel the tension in your work between mission and margin?  What could you do if you had more funding?  How do you know the approach will actually be impactful to the cause you care about?  Does the business model you have today work on a larger scale? These are the fundamental questions to be asking yourself for greater impact.  

One of the first moves in resolving the tension between mission and margin is recognizing that it is not a problem to be fixed, but a puzzle to put together.  What could increase the value you provide such that it becomes self-funding?  A sustainable model is created when the passion and creativity of the founder is the engine that creates genuine, clear, understandable value.   

Value translates into money: (1) when there is clarity on what value is being provided to whom and (2) the value being provided exceeds the costs and is better than the alternatives. This is important. 

 If your project doesn’t yet stack up, then it’s a call to design or re-design the value equation for your business. In this way the tension between mission and margin is a positive force, keeping all of us grounded and connected to those our missions are intended to serve.  What if mission and margin are not in competition, but in fact are partners, leaning into each other to create the success that is purposeful and enduring?  

For the mission-driven person money may seem like a necessary evil that takes us away from our true calling – someone’s got to pay the rent!  I used to see it this way too.  Part of the reason for my honest disdain for money, and undervaluing of its importance, is that I didn’t understand it and didn’t really want to.   

That had to change to help my mission.  I had gifts that I needed to share with others. 

A Second Language

I became a business owner not because I really wanted to own a business but more because it was a way I could do what I wanted to do, what I was called to do.  Only later did I decide that I could build a business as a way to further the mission itself.  I got busy creating a culture and a learning laboratory, that would help test out leadership development, team building, and organizational development strategies used with clients.  

My relationship with money was problematic.  I didn’t have much interest in money, or need for it, or knowledge of how to track it, but it was required for me to be able to do what I wanted to do.  I would tell myself that I had to pay attention to the numbers.  I just didn’t want to.  I would literally cry about not wanting to read financial statements; not feeling like I could; being mad that I didn’t know how; and feeling defeated because it seems to reduce my dreams, my mission, and the thing I held sacred into little, lifeless symbols.  

Yet, I knew that if I was going to make a difference through my business,  I had to learn how to manage cash flow, understand accounting, develop pricing, monitor our margins and more. 

budget calculator and charts

Image via The Balance

Honestly, it took me years to get past a big internal sigh— every time the financials came out — along with a mental reiteration of the reasons why it was important to care about the numbers.  There were so many other areas I cared about, that I was begrudging every minute I spent on it.  

My identity was closely wrapped up with my ignorance about business finances, and the expectation that it would be painful to look at the numbers. But here’s what happened.   

I claimed my current knowledge and developed an appreciation for the value and utility of money for my missions.  Today, after 20 years of running a business, financing our expansion through reinvestment of profits and running complex government contracts, my respect for what money represents has transformed. 

I opted for money as a second language!  And, it’s transformed my abilities and business.  Now I see things in a whole new way and am much a much more powerful leader.   

 When your business creates value in the world by manifesting your mission, the accounting is one way to measure what is happening in a material sense.  I have found that tracking the profits to share with my employees really matters. Tracking our ‘give-back’ of pro bono services and our donations to causes we care about infuses even more meaning into our work.  

Measuring the scope and scale of our success serving clients and fulfilling our mission would be incomplete without understanding the finances. 

Gradually I have come to see that it’s a false competition to pit margin against the mission, they are really just two sides of the same coin.  They truly benefit one another in healthy ways.  If you can add value to one person through your mission, and find the means to fund that value, you can build a career or an enterprise from there.  

Understanding Money

Lynne Twist shares in her book, The Soul of Money, various insights about how we create a relationship with money.  This relationship is formed by many circumstances that have influenced us all the way from the culture to our family and living circumstances, and our experiences.  But I learned that much of our information about how we think and feel about money is unexamined.   

growing money

Image via Avalon Church

Even for those of us who run businesses, departments, or manage budgets this is true! Without questioning our underlying assumptions and taking on the exploration of what else is possible, we lock our mental framework into its current state with limitations that likely won’t serve our missions.  A growth mindset, willing to explore and update our beliefs, truly helps us move forward in pursuit of our life purpose. 

If, “Money was invented to facilitate the sharing of exchanging goods and services among individuals and groups….”, as described by Twist, how could it not be an essential part of the mission-driven venture you envision?   

Here’s the truth about this:  A heartfelt look at what it means to have money, and not to have it, the purpose it serves, and the energy and intention you overlay on money creates a doorway for resolving this tension between margin and mission in a graceful way that increases your ability to make a difference.   

If you have challenges around sufficient money, it is a call for a deeper dive and examination of your framework and relationship to it — just as you may have spent hours thinking about the purposes you wish it to serve.   

Ethical businesses, once focused primarily on profits, are now taking a broader view of their enterprise.   They are reevaluating the purpose of the product or service and the value it provides to those who purchase it, from this point of view.  High character leaders in every type of organization, balance mission, and margin regularly.  It is the way of the future.   

Just like non-profits and social enterprises, businesses alike must feel the tension between the good they can do and the need to continue to keep the operations going and stakeholders happy.   

Let’s look at our own lives. There are parallels, trade-offs, and limitations with some of our money which we use for necessities, commitments and some for just enjoyment.  Inherently, what we value becomes a question of values.   

How do you see yourself in relationship to money?  How do you see money in relation to you?  When money becomes an expression of value, and values, it ceases to be in conflict with the mission.  It becomes another form of your mission’s expression.  Isn’t that lovely! 

Successful, ethical businesses of the future will have greater access to their purpose, and openly discuss, work for, and ensure that their mission is sound.  Mission-driven enterprises that become increasingly savvy about their funds will be better positioned to make a bigger difference.  You are no different — join in! 

What do you hope to accomplish?  What is your mission?  How can you fund that mission in a way that builds, extends and supports the mission itself?   Awakening women’s thoughts and capabilities around money serve our collective mission of using business as a force for good and empowering women to lead. 

By making decisions with both mission and margin in mind — we serve to eliminate the tension by integrating financial success with creating positive change in the world.  Now that’s a fulfilling relationship with money!   

And women are uniquely capable of leading the way for this fundamental and powerful change in the way business and money are integrated!  

Jessica G. Hartung 

Jessica’s focus is growing people, personally and professionally, through their work. She founded Integrated Work to fulfill a vision of creating a learning laboratory company that brings top-notch professional development to mission-driven leaders making the world a better place. 

Her “superpower” is designing system-level solutions that integrate multiple perspectives, and accomplish multiple objectives. Poof! The team at Integrated Work partners to implement co-designed solutions for capacity building such as peer learning communities, coaching and leadership development programs, strategic planning, and team development. 

With twenty years of experience as a leader in the collaborative professional development, Jessica has led hundreds of retreats, powerful peer learning events, and has real-life, in-the-trenches business experience as CEO. Her views are grounded in industry research and walking-the-talk inspiration to explore new ways to build leadership capability every day. Jessica lives in Boulder with her husband, astrophysicist Dr. Steven Hartung and two amazing, entrepreneurial teenagers. 

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