These 5 Mindsets Make Nonprofits Successful

Simple lessons from a survey of the most successful aid organizations in India can be applied to nonprofits around the world.

These 5 Mindsets Make Nonprofits Successful
[Illustration: mooltfilm/iStock]

Most major nonprofits face the challenge of having to make an impact, and scale that impact, using only scant resources. Those who succeed the best generally adhere to one of five key mindsets, according to a recent Bridgespan study published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. “I don’t think we are trying to be prescriptive,” says Soumitra Pandey, a co-author of the report. “But certainly for the tools in your armory, you could potentially add a couple of them and be more successful.”

The report focused on India because the challenges faced by nonprofits there make it a good corollary for work anywhere: More than 250 million people live on less than $2 daily there with an underfunded school system and health care crisis. The country is also amazingly diverse; with a wide variety of ethnic groups and different languages.

To figure out what’s working there, Bridgespan looked at 20 successful nonprofits to figure out what commonalities were allowing them to reach a combined millions in need. The best shared five key thought patterns, which the report summarizes like this:

  • The Denominator Mind-Set: Stay focused on the size of the need, while remaining flexible in confronting it.
  • The Dignity Mind-Set: To serve many, elevate the humanity of each participant.
  • The Radical Frugality Mind-Set: When scarcity abounds, reduce costs while stretching impact.
  • The Innovative Hiring Mind-Set: Tap hidden talent from unexpected sources.
  • The Collaborative Mind-Set: Make government a partner, not an adversary.

As the report notes, a “denominator” mentality means thinking about the entire population in need to ensure your solution (the numerator) can widely address it. Just quoting your growth rate isn’t great if you’re not serving that many people to begin with.

Similarly, “radical frugality” is about both cutting expenses and investing in what will pay you back the most over time. For groups distributing fresh meals, for instance, creating a central hub like a commercial kitchen may seem daunting. But if it reduces workforce and increases how much food can be made quickly and delivered efficiently, it could certainly pay dividends over time. Sharing with staff exactly how the budget is allocated may lead to employees finding new ways to cut costs, too. As the report notes, the group Akshaya Patra, which delivers lunches to 1.6 million children at a cost of 13 cents per meal, trimmed margins by making it clear that every cent saved in meal-making would feed about 300,000 more kids.

On the innovative hiring front, many Indian organizations have had great success recruiting employees directly from the populations they serve. To that end, figuring out how to hire on potential and aptitude and then train your own staff can save costs and ensure you have a better understanding of those you serve. Indian aid groups recognize the importance of working with governments not because they’re perfect partners, but because cooperation often means access to officials and some designated supply network rather than having to figure out the logistics of reaching each community separately.

That doesn’t mean the terms of initial agreements don’t change: In some cases, groups that have proven their methods are indispensable, have used more of these mentalities to cut costs or restructure their services in a way that the government’s low-level buy-in is all that’s needed to continue covering the investment.

For his part, Pandey was most impressed by the huge gains that groups saw from remembering that delivering services with “dignity” can have a great ripple effect. Showing respect to the population you’re serving not only makes them more receptive to receiving aid, it may empower them to do more to improve their own situations. “It basically focuses on almost a customer-centricity. That would be the business world equivalent,” he says. For example, the group Goonj has found a way to help devastated communities pitch in with their own disaster relief and community-building projects by delivering pressed and near-perfect secondhand clothes, which are already a huge need, as a form of payment to people willing to help on whatever project they deem most important.

Just handing out the clothes or doing the service without cooperation wouldn’t have the same effect. The transaction itself becomes powerful. ”When you focus on your beneficiaries’ dignity, it ends up increasing the self-confidence and belief of people. That helps people solve not only the problem that the nonprofit is addressing but other problems [in their lives].”

Correction: The Bridgespan report initially underplayed the number of languages and ethnic groups in India, which are immense. We’ve corrected the article to reflect that.

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