Joe’s Journal: When the Mission Has Been Met

“The most important obstacle to innovation is that public-service institutions exist, after all, to ‘do good.’ This means that they tend to see their mission as a moral absolute rather than as economic and subject to a cost/benefit calculus. Economics always seeks a different allocation of the same resources to obtain a higher yield. In the public-service institution, there is no such thing as a higher yield. If one is ‘doing good,’ then there is no ‘better.’ Indeed, failure to attain objectives in the quest for a ‘good’ only means that efforts need to be redoubled. . . . The closer a public-service institution comes to attaining its objectives, therefore, the more frustrated it will be and the harder it will work on what it is already doing.”

—Peter F. Drucker

Public-service institutions should exist for the sake of their mission and values. Mission should be the organizing principle for objectives, programs and structure. When the mission is fulfilled, the management should disband and resist the temptation to continue to try “do good” in areas where their values and programs are not as strong as other institutions.

Few organizations better illustrate this rule than the March of Dimes, which, as Peter Drucker has noted, acquired during the 1950s a large share of donations in support of its mission to eradicate poliomyelitis. President Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio, formed the March of Dimes in 1938.

I witnessed the effects of polio during my teenage years. I had a friend whose sister was in an Iron Lung, a tank-like device, which helped those with the form of polio that infects the muscles of the lung. Patients in Iron Lungs often died, but some recovered and had enough strength to live productive lives.

The severity and widespread nature of the disease led to massive donations to the March of Dimes in support of its mission and values. Funds raised supported research that led to the development of two vaccines, the first by Jonas Salk in 1952, and the second by Albert Sabin later in the 1950s. The vaccines were so successful that they practically eradicated this dreadful disease.

The March of Dimes thus fulfilled its original mission in a stunning fashion. But, rather than celebrating and disbanding, officials there used their organization and resources to refocus on curing birth defects. They are now much less visible and acquire only a tiny share of charitable donations from the public. There are many social sector intuitions such as Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles with similar innovative missions, higher visibility and greater effectiveness. Given the high administrative costs of running an organization such as the March of Dimes, we need to ask a hard question: Is this an example of succumbing to the “temptation to do good” and a waste of society’s resources?

—Joe Maciariello