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May 30, 2015

Nine Next Practices for Leading Nonprofits

If “best practices” represent wisdom from the past that helps us address the present, “next practices” can help propel us forward as we lead nonprofit organizations into the future.

Whether we’re talking about leading public charities, arts institutions, foundations, or trade associations, the best nonprofit leaders are always thinking higher-level to consider which strategies will help their organization become more relevant and sustainable.

Below are nine strategic “next practices,” some inward-facing and some outward-facing, that can help leaders create a successful future for nonprofits. Spoiler alert — mastering these is not easy! They take courageous leadership, collaboration, patience, and resolve. These practices need to be driven from the top, but require everyone’s participation.

  1. Revisit and Realign with Mission: Examining your organization’s mission statement may feel like a look into the past, but the nonprofits that will remain relevant understand the need to take stock of who they are now and how their mission aligns with the world of today and tomorrow. Does your institution’s mission statement need to be broadened, narrowed, clarified or shifted? What was the underlying intention of the organization’s founders, how has that vision evolved, and how are those principles best applied moving forward?
  2. Come from a Place of Vision, Ambition, and Abundance: For too long, many nonprofits have operated and communicated from a place of need, fear, desperation and scarcity. That place only attracts a certain type of supporter, and in limited number. Instead, the nonprofits of tomorrow need to take a bolder stance. Let’s face it: no one wants to support a struggling entity. Your future advocates will want to be part of something ambitious and full of the potential for even deeper impact in the community. When you take on a more ambitious vision for the future, you will attract more ambitious advocates, and you can expect more from them.
  3. Double-Down on a Core Asset—Your People: The employees of our nonprofits have traditionally been overlooked, to our detriment. I suppose it’s easy to do, as the day-to-day challenges for nonprofits often direct the attention of our leaders and the bulk of budgets towards more immediate, tangible fires, or to the important needs of board members and donors. But a larger investment in the precious core asset of your staff is a key element. That investment doesn’t need to come in the form of higher salaries, although money can certainly help attract and retain employees. But, as we all know, employee satisfaction and motivation are driven by more than just money. Leaders of nonprofits of the future must direct time and attention towards regular practices that promote employee recognition, appreciation, and professional development.
  4. Create a Sustainable Work Culture: Although the elusive work-life balance is no doubt hard to achieve (and even harder for nonprofits), the nonprofit of “next” works to promote more sustainability within its culture. This could come in the form of flexibility in schedule or work hours, the ability to work remotely for the longterm, and robust vacation offerings. Older styles of management are being replaced with collegial, team approaches. When the right employees are hired as part of the team, with whom expectations and boundaries are clarified, trust should remain intact amidst more flexibility.
  5. Cultivate Leaders from Within: Leadership development and succession planning have also not traditionally received enough attention from nonprofits. It is critical to the future of our organizations that we’re led by individuals who are both experienced in our field and skilled in the essentials of leadership. Recognizing rising stars at your institution, and providing them the mentoring and training needed to take them to the next level, is a practice of a future-focused nonprofit. Developing a “deep bench” of potential leaders will do a great service to your mission.
  6. View Technology as an Enabler, not a Cost Center: It’s not uncommon for nonprofits to be supported by outdated or weak technology tools and infrastructure. At many organizations, technology is viewed as a budget line item that often ends up getting reduced or cut. This short term thinking seriously hampers the ability to deliver reliable services to our constituents and to do the important work of innovation. Nonprofits of “next” see the incredible potential that exists when technology is viewed as an enabler. It’s time for nonprofits to be on the front end of innovation, using technology to help lead new ways of serving our communities.
  7. Further Integrate Into Our Diverse Communities: This idea may seem obvious, since most nonprofits are more oriented towards the community than not. But our current (and likely future) world is inviting us to go even deeper. Interconnectedness, both online and in our communities, has become the norm. Nonprofits need to look at how to thread themselves into this web even further. How can your organization serve, integrate, and involve more of the diverse community while still staying true to your core mission? Do you approach the community with an open ear and a curious mind to hear their ideas? How can your nonprofit lead a community-wide discussion about important issues? Does it create community in addition to serving it.
  8. Drive Deeper Loyalty: In today’s world, audience and donor-building is not just a game of new acquisitions or mass communications. It’s a well thought-out plan of creating sustainable and loyal advocates for your cause through deep relationship building — and this plan requires a shift in strategy and resources. The nonprofits of “next” are focused on developing relationships at all levels, not simply with the important major gift prospects and benefactors. To retain a larger segment of supporters year-after-year, organizations must devise plans that create meaningful and regular touch points and interactions, and make a commitment of resources in that direction.
  9. Communicate with a Stronger Voice: Many nonprofits have inherited old ways of talking about their mission or work in the community. And often they are fraught with splintered communications across different parts of the organization. Speaking with a stronger voice will be critical as competition for the donor and consumer dollar increases. Future-oriented nonprofits are working now to better understand what resonates with their current and potential supporters, and developing a messaging platform that clearly communicates those values. When a platform of key messages is introduced and used consistently across an organization, the goals of raising awareness and increasing investment become that much easier.


  • “Next practices” help nonprofit leaders lay the groundwork for future success and sustainability.
  • In an environment where audiences and donors are bombarded by more choices and messages, nonprofits need to stand out and make a stronger case for support.
  • Use the nine “next practices” as a guide, as outlined above.
  • “Next practices” take courageous leadership, collaboration, patience, and resolve. They need to be driven from the top, but require everyone’s participation.


Try This Out:

  • Hold a series of cross-constituent meetings to discuss the mission and vision of the organization, keeping in mind a strategic view into the next 5 to 10 years. This exercise is a good basis for the beginning of a larger strategic planning process.
  • Facilitate an open and honest discussion with management staff about how to improve the sustainability of the work culture at your nonprofit, and how to show more investment in the staff as a treasured asset.
  • If you are a staff member, proactively and courageously communicate up to your manager about ways the staff team environment could be improved.
  • Engage in a succession planning discussion with the board and senior staff leadership to identify strategies for deepening your bench of future leaders.
  • Perform an IT audit to understand the current state of your infrastructure and tools. Brainstorm what’s possible if IT is viewed as an enabler for innovation.
  • Facilitate a discussion, or series of discussions, with community leaders. Listen to their feedback on how your nonprofit could be even more relevant to your diverse community.
  • Map the experience of your different audience and donor groups, understanding where there’s opportunity for deeper relationship building.
  • Lead the creation of a communications platform in order to unify and strengthen messaging across the organization.


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