Partners (Spring 1999)

Ten Habits of Highly Successful Nonprofits
By: Courtney Dufries

After ten years of listening to successful nonprofits, several themes emerge that might be helpful to your own organization. Ten tips to improve your organization are presented below.

One: Be Active

Some issues demand our attention and action. Low-income areas suffer tremendously from problems as diverse as illegal dumping, excessive noise, drug dealing, building code and zoning violations, commercial and industrial encroachment, panhandling, and illegal camping. Stand up and speak out at public hearings, call your elected officials and government officials to demand code enforcement or police protection, and organize neighborhood family activities. Coordinate your efforts with others by forming coalitions of interested parties with shared objectives. Be persistent and be active; the results will be worth it. And it doesn't cost much money to make an impact!

Two: Seek Alternative Solutions

Of course, the corollary to Be Active is to be sensitive and fair. For example, demanding that your next door neighbor not run an auto repair business in the front yard may be appropriate, but it does impact that family's income. Helping to identify an alternative location and recommending a small business technical assistance program would certainly be more desirable than just putting somebody out of business. Likewise, demanding that homeless people not sleep in the doorway of your commercial building may be appropriate, but working with area shelters and social workers to address the problem may provide a better long-term solution.

Three: Accept Changes

Advocates often complain about contemplated changes that impact low- and moderate-income families and areas. And for good reason: many of the changes have not had the favorable impact articulated by community and business leaders. However, to make progress, we all must change. The tools and techniques used in the past are not always appropriate or even available to us now.

Four: If it ain't broke, don't fix it

Changing the way we provide affordable housing, or welfare benefits, or other public programs is not a bad idea. But in so doing, we must remember that not everything we did in the past was wrong. In fact, some of our past efforts paid exceptional dividends. Imagine where we would be without our previous fights against poverty, discrimination, and redlining, for example. Although existing programs may not generate the excitement that a new program can bring, don't throw out the old programs if they are working. Incremental change is often a better approach.

Five: Know your Partners

Just about everybody answers to somebody. Bankers answer to stock holders, board members, regulators, and customers. Nonprofits answer to funders, board members, clients, and even government agencies like the Internal Revenue Service. Government agencies answer to other government agencies, elected officials, and more importantly, voters. The list goes on. The point is, everybody has constraints. Know you partners, and know their limits. It will make your job much easier in the long-run.

Six: Know your limits

If you have never done a particular type of project, do your homework and find a solid partner. Joint ventures may limit your income or influence, but the on-the-job training and shared risk could save you considerable time and money, and improve your reputation.

Seven: Manage your Money

Be strict with your accounting. Nothing will cause your organization to lose credibility faster than poor money management. Sadly, one of the more prevalent problems we have seen in the nonprofit sector is poor money management. Manage your expenses carefully, anticipate your income conservatively, and never divert funds from one project to another without everybody's concurrence in advance. It's bad business, and may even be illegal.

Eight: Make the Hard Calls

Not every proposal is worth doing. Some projects have sentimental value; some problems (such as homelessness) are depressing; and some communities are so distressed that you may be compelled to act even when you do not have the time and resources. But choose carefully, and think about the long run. Burning-out or overextending today means you may not be around to help others tomorrow.

Nine: Share your lessons learned

It's always good to talk about your successes, but it is also helpful to share your war stories, too. No project is perfect. Others will benefit if you not only share the good news, but the failures as well.

Ten: Celebrate your Success

Every time. The truth is, success doesn't come easy. Recognize everybody who had a role, even a small role, and enjoy the moment. The goodwill generated will go further than you may think!

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