• Dr Samantha Hardy

Six Practices Underpin High Impact Non Profits

Updated: Jul 11, 2018

Research reveals six practices that underpin extraordinary impact within the non-profit community.

Sometimes you come across an old article that still has great relevance and value. 

I want to share the main messages from 'Creating High Impact Non-Profits' published in the Stamford Innovation Review in 2007 because they resonate strongly with what funders increasingly want to see from the non-profit community in Australia. 

The article reports on a study that identified the six practices that underpin extraordinary impact within the non-profit community, and six myths that don't actually have anything to do with a non-profit's impact at all. The six practices are these:

1. Serve and Advocate (or, Advocate and Serve)

The article explains that, "High-impact organizations may start out providing great programs, but they eventually realize that they cannot achieve large-scale social change through service delivery alone. So they add policy advocacy to acquire government resources and to change legislation. Other nonprofits start out by doing advocacy and later add grassroots programs to supercharge their strategy.

Ultimately, all high-impact organizations bridge the divide between service and advocacy. They become good at both. And the more they serve and advocate, the more they achieve impact. A nonprofit’s grassroots work helps inform its policy advocacy, making legislation more relevant. And advocacy at the national level can help a nonprofit replicate its model, gain credibility, and acquire funding for expansion".

I emphasise the difference between 'charity' (the relief of suffering) and 'philanthropy' (a focus on addressing root causes), in my What Funders Want Masterclass. Funders increasingly want to see non-profits (or alliances of non-profits working together) serving community needs and advocating for the policy and legal changes that are needed to address the issues and problems that generate the community needs in the first place.  

2. Make Markets Work

The article then gives examples of high-impact nonprofits that have learned that tapping into the power of self-interest and the laws of economics can be far more effective than appealing to pure altruism. As the author explains, "No longer content to rely on traditional notions of charity, or to see business as an enemy, these nonprofits find ways to work with markets and help companies “do good while doing well.” They influence business practices, build corporate partnerships, and develop earnedincome ventures to achieve social change on a grander scale".

A point that I make to many of the non-profits that I am working with is that social enterprise needs to be considered as part of the funding mix because traditional philanthropic funders want to see how the non-profit is going to sustain itself long into the future beyond that individual's gift. Building alliances with businesses to deliver services and provide scale and/or forming new social ventures are some of the activities that impress sophisticated funders. 

3. Inspire Evangelists

"High-impact nonprofits build strong communities of supporters who help them achieve their larger goals. They value volunteers, donors, and advisers not only for their time, money, and guidance, but also for their evangelism. To inspire supporters’ commitment, these nonprofits create emotional experiences that help connect supporters to the group’s mission and core values. These experiences convert outsiders to evangelists, who in turn recruit others in viral marketing at its finest. High-impact nonprofits then nurture and sustain these communities of supporters over time, recognizing that they are not just means, but ends in themselves."

One particular Australian non profit leader that I have worked with comes to mind here. He built and grew a whole organisation around inspiring volunteers and actively encouraging evangelism. He was quite rare in his foresight. He offered interesting 'core work' to volunteers and built a powerful national network of motivated foot soldiers. The impact on the visibility of the organisation was staggering and it experienced phenomenal growth as a result. 

4. Nurture Nonprofit Networks

"Although most nonprofits pay lip service to collaboration, many of them really see other groups as competition for scarce resources. But high impact organizations help their peers succeed, building networks of nonprofit allies and devoting remarkable time and energy to advancing their fields. They freely share wealth, expertise, talent, and power with other nonprofits not because they are saints, but because it’s in their self-interest to do so."

While funders know that collaboration amongst non-profits can be challenging to pull off, it is deeply appealing to them because of the opportunities for shared resources and enhanced impact. I once received multiple funding proposals from different non-profits for essentially the same project. I was staggered that non of the leaders, who knew each other well, had gotten together to plan a collaborative approach. My feedback to them all was this: "Here is some investment to go away and and develop a collaborative strategy and proposal that plays to all your strengths." 

5. Master the Art of Adaptation

"High-impact nonprofits are exceptionally adaptive, modifying their tactics as needed to increase their success. They have responded to changing circumstances with one innovation after another. Along the way, they’ve made mistakes and have even produced some flops. But unlike many nonprofits, they have also mastered the ability to listen, learn, and modify their approach on the basis of external cues. Adaptability has allowed them to sustain their impact."

This point is important for funders and non-profits. Good strategy and delivering outcomes go hand in hand, and funders increasing want to interrogate your strategic assessments and conclusions. However, a good strategy can quickly become a terrible one if it does not evolve with the changing environment, especially when policy change outcomes are sought. 

6. Share Leadership

"The leaders of [the 12 organizations studied] all exhibit charisma, but they don’t have oversized egos. They know that they must share power in order to be stronger forces for good. They distribute leadership within their organizations and throughout their external nonprofit networks, empowering others to lead. Leaders of high-impact nonprofits cultivate a strong second-in-command, build enduring executive teams with long tenure, and develop large and powerful boards."

I was on the board of a non-profit that deployed this 'shared leadership' approach and I could see the value of it first hand. This organisation has built a strong leadership group and it now has two powerful and visible leaders supporting an excellent team to deliver astonishing outcomes. Power sharing is used as a tactic to deliver outcomes. The organisation often gives away great ideas and policy outcome 'wins' to other individuals and groups in order to advance their longer term agenda.


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