Ten characteristics of great nonprofits and the four critical skills that empower them

Author, writer and consultant Peter Brinckerhoff claims it’s an exciting time to be in the nonprofit world. He asserts, “There are more challenges, more opportunities and more ways to respond to the increasing needs in a community.”

Three guiding principles are at the core of high-impact nonprofits

The third edition of Mission-Based Management bestows on the reader a comprehensive look at what today’s nonprofit managers should prioritize in order to model the best high-impact nonprofits. The premise of the book, is based on three philosophies that have informed Brinckerhoff’s entire career of 30 plus years: “Nonprofits are businesses.” “No one gives you a dime.” “Nonprofit does not mean no profit.”

He convincingly demonstrates the truth in each of these points throughout the book and in each of the management competencies he explores—from leadership, governance, and finances to marketing, mission, ethics, and more.

Dangerous assumptions, four critical skills and 10 characteristics of great charities

Brinckerhoff also broaches the dangerous assumptions that have surfaced in our sector over the years, such as foundations controlling nonprofits after giving them money and nonprofits needing to take a “vow of poverty.” He gives four essential skills for mission-based managers and introduces the 10 characteristics of successful nonprofits.

The four skills include the ability to:

1)     balance the needs of the community with the organization’s available resources;

2)     innovate as a social entrepreneur, taking reasonable risks on behalf of the organization’s beneficiaries;

3)     lead the organization by example and motivate the staff, board and community; and

4)     communicate effectively the mission to the staff, board, public and stakeholders.

Brinckerhoff then covers the 10 characteristics of a successful nonprofit in the rest of Mission-Based Management, each chapter tackling one characteristic.

The section below lists each characteristic he discusses in depth:

1)     A viable mission: The mission is why your organization exists so utilizing it to the fullest extent is your first priority. The author recommends reviewing your mission statement at least every three years when you write your strategic plan in order to make sure it is accurate.

2)     Ethics, accountability and transparency: “There is nothing more important to your mission success than [ethics, accountability and transparency]. Nothing.” Mission comes first and values follow.

3)     A businesslike board of directors: Brinckerhoff provides a list of desirable characteristics in a board, a list of items that prevent effectiveness and a list of responsibilities surrounding the three general functions of a board—preserving the trust, setting policy and supporting the charity.

4)     Leading your people: People usually work for a nonprofit for the mission and respect, not for the money. Brinckerhoff uses the inverted pyramid of management to illustrate how best to value and keep your people.

5)     Embracing technology for mission: Technology serves some important purposes for nonprofits, namely for education, volunteers, new employees, transparency and development.

6)     Creating a social entrepreneur: Brinckerhoff emphasizes the need for nonprofits to return to their start-up, entrepreneurial phases in terms of increased flexibility, willingness to embrace and shape change, and inclination to take risks.

7)     Developing a bias for marketing: “Of all the business skills you can put to work for your mission, marketing is the most applicable in the most areas.” The author emphasizes this slogan, “Everything that everyone here does every day is marketing.”

8)     Financial empowerment: Using financial skills and concepts from the business world can help you achieve your mission without always having to comply with the restrictions traditional funders place on you.

9)     A vision for the future: Strategic planning is essential to have purpose, coordinate all other planning (budgets, staffing, fundraising), delegate more effectively, be flexible, and exhibit good business and stewardship.

10)  The controls that set you free: For a leader to delegate (an important skill for a leader in order to free up time to be a visionary), controls must be in place in areas such as bylaws, conflict of interest, financial, human resource, media, volunteers, disaster, program and quality assurance policies.

Brinckerhoff establishes in the introduction of his book that much has changed since he wrote the first edition of Mission-Based Management in 1994. His effort to keep pace with change in our sector is a bellwether for nonprofit leaders to match his ongoing pursuit of what defines a successful mission-based nonprofit. Brinckerhoff challenges you to embrace the good business practices that can be adapted for mission-based management. He tempts you to strive for a profit because that margin will empower you to be financially viable and sustainable. He invites you to recognize that donors are paying for service—you earn everything you get.

See also:

12: The Elements of Great Managing

Building Nonprofit Capacity: A Guide to Managing Change Through Organizational Lifecycles

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

Image credits: patheos.com, muppetwikia.com, ultimateclassicrock.com, wiley.com

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