Forces for Good: A second look at how the high-impact nonprofits fared

The world has changed significantly since the first edition of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits was published in late 2007. The U.S. and global economies have significantly slowed down, while government cutbacks, reduced public philanthropy and less corporate funding have all challenged nonprofits like never before.

This stark new context prompted us to revisit our initial research last year and see if our findings still held up in a dramatically different environment. In the original book, we studied 12 high-impact nonprofits, from Habitat for Humanity to Heritage Foundation to Feeding America, and distilled six practices these organizations use to change the world. This time, we wanted to know how the original high-impact nonprofits fared during the Great Recession and what else we might we learn from them about thriving in difficult times.

Additionally, we also wanted to know how local and smaller nonprofits, which represent the vast majority of our sector, apply the same six practices to deepen their local impact. So we also conducted entirely new research last year on 13 local and smaller nonprofits operating on budgets ranging from $600,000 to $5 million. Despite recent changes in the economic landscape, our updated research reaffirms the viability of the original six practices for scaling social impact for organizations both large and small.

Here are a few lessons we learned from the original 12 high-impact nonprofits about thriving in turbulent times.

Accelerate into a downturn

Counter-intuitively, instead of causing setbacks, the recession became a force that propelled high-performing groups forward. Rather than putting their foot on the fundraising brake, many accelerated their development efforts, often by focusing their strategy on their highest-impact activities. Along the way, the majority of the original 12 nonprofits significantly increased their revenue. Teach For America quintupled in size, growing from $41 million in 2005 to $277 million in 2010. Four of the 12 groups doubled their budgets, and almost all the others grew at healthy clips. Rather than shying from growth, they leaned into their strategies and came out stronger.

Stay close to your donors

The moment the recession hit, Ed Feulner, CEO of The Heritage Foundation, instructed his development team to call every single major benefactor and ask: “How are you doing? How will this downturn affect your giving?” Donors appreciated Heritage’s high-touch approach, cementing their long-term commitment to the conservative cause. Then Heritage intensified its direct marketing campaign. “Those who do well in recessions come out strong. We didn’t want to show weakness,” says Feulner. The result? From 2005 to 2010, the organization doubled in size to $81 million, and nearly tripled its dues-paying membership base from 250,000 to more than 700,000 members.

Find opportunity in crisis

Fred Krupp, chief executive of the Environmental Defense Fund made the point: “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” It’s advice many of the nonprofits we studied have taken to heart. For EDF it was leveraging the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2009 to help spearhead the “biggest ecosystem restoration effort ever in the history of the planet,” says Mr. Krupp. For other nonprofits, it was about pivoting quickly to respond to immediate needs. “Of course we all pray that there will be no disasters,” says Habitat for Humanity’s chief executive, Jonathan Reckford. “But when they do occur, you have to be willing to adjust your efforts… [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, and the Indian Ocean Tsunami, were rallying points to kill cultural sacred cows about how we scale. With both events, we went much deeper in a smaller place and time.” Habitat built 25,000 homes in response to the tsunami and 2,000 in the Gulf region post-Katrina.

In addition to employing these immediate strategies to survive and thrive during the recession, these high-impact nonprofits all continue to follow the six practices we first identified. If anything, they’ve even deepened their reliance on these practices to increase their impact. They know how to tap into business to create new ways to serve the public good and how to influence government policies to help the people they serve. And they are constantly building movements of volunteers and supporters while working collaboratively with their nonprofit peers. Lastly, they continue to share leadership and remain highly adaptive, able to not just survive, but thrive in challenging times. In our updated book, we show how these organizations have continued to leverage the six practices to be forces for good, even in difficult times.

As for local organizations, we also learned a number of lessons about how smaller nonprofits can apply the same six practices to have deeper impact in their communities. In a lengthy chapter, featuring all new research on 13 high-impact local nonprofits, we explore how they adapt and modify these practices to fit the local context. Many of them share leadership not just within their organizations, but with their volunteers, board and other close stakeholders, thus expanding their reach. They also engage local evangelists to help deliver services and promote their cause, and they build networks of local nonprofits, collaborating to share resources, align action and be more effective in their work. Lastly, while advocacy and making markets work are more challenging for smaller, local nonprofits, that didn’t stop the best of them from using these levers to change policy at the state and local level or to make local markets work more effectively by working with and through business.

About the authors

Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant  co-authored Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits; the new updated edition (Jossey-Bass/Wiley 2012), includes lessons on how 12 high-impact nonprofits fared during the global recession and additional research on how local and smaller nonprofits employ the six practices to deepen impact in their own communities.

See also:

Do More Than Give

The NON Nonprofit

Building Nonprofit Capacity

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