November 20, 2019
 
Real-World Guidance for Building an Impactful Nonprofit

The sheer scope and quantity of nonprofits may suggest there is no single formula by which startups can achieve growth and realize the impact they seek to make, but there actually could be, as detailed in Social Startup Success.

Simply put, many new nonprofits find themselves on a treadmill: they launch and expand somewhat, but not enough to achieve organizational sustainability, which, according to author Kathleen Kelly Janus, means sustaining operations and becoming highly impactful.

It's no small challenge. No matter how innovative an organization is or how impactful its services are, the reality is the vast majority of nonprofits have annual operating budgets under $500,000, operate month to month, and have few reserves.

Janus, a social entrepreneur, lecturer at Stanford University, and expert on philanthropy, set out to learn what it takes to get off the treadmill. Based on years of research and more than 200 interviews with founders, leadership teams, and funders of nonprofits across the country, she distilled what she learned into five key strategies that she says the best nonprofits employ to scale up and make a difference. They are:
  • Testing ideas through research and development to get proof of concept before seeking major funding or media coverage.

  • Measuring impact right from the start, often with inventive metrics tailored to specific programs.

  • Funding experimentation through a combination of selling products and services that are in strong alignment with the organization's mission, and employing bold strategies to raise philanthropic capital.

  • Leading collaboratively in a fashion that allows nonprofits to optimize the talents of their staff, including building a strong board of directors.

  • Telling compelling stories in ways that utilize the most recent innovations and tap into others to advocate on their behalf.
Especially noteworthy, according to Janus, is these practices can be readily applied to any nonprofit – and applied immediately. Her point: they can be adopted just as effectively by, say, an organization combatting homelessness as by an organization seeking to bring performance art to underserved areas.

Janus makes her case by telling the stories of how visionary individuals drove organizational success, and provides tools and templates that any nonprofit can use, such as how to craft a theory of change that will guide your organization, a performance dashboard to track key performance indicators, and research on how boards are helpful and how they could be more helpful.

Of particular interest is the inclusion of a series of benchmarks related to fundraising, leading, and storytelling. Realistically, it takes a lot of work to adopt and act on the benchmarks, but building a successful, impactful organization takes lots of effort, more than most people can know in advance. If they have a vision they think is worthy, they owe it to themselves to approach it with the rigor and completeness outlined in this book.

Social Startup Success is available from Hachette Book Group.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
November 2019


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