The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

In this excerpt from the book Forces for Good, authors Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant share what makes a nonprofit effective.

We spent three years studying 12 of the most successful nonprofits in recent U.S. history. They have come up with innovative solutions to pressing social problems, and they have spread these ideas nationally or internationally. In the business world, these organizations would be akin to companies like Google or eBay.


What we learned about these nonprofits astonished us, and intrigued others with long experience in the field. We believe that the framework we’ve discovered offers a new lens for understanding the social sector and what it takes to create extraordinary levels of social change. Any organization seeking to increase its social impact can emulate the six practices that we describe in detail below.

The secret to success lies in how great organizations mobilize every sector of society — government, business, nonprofits, and the public — to be a force for good. In other words, greatness has more to do with how nonprofits work outside the boundaries of their organizations than how they manage their own internal operations. Textbook strategies like relentless fundraising, well-connected boards, and effective management are necessary, of course, but they are hardly sufficient. The high-impact nonprofits we studied are satisfied with building a “good enough” organization and then spending their time and energy focused externally on catalyzing large-scale systemic change. Great organizations work with and through others to create more impact than they could ever achieve alone.

“Give me a lever long enough, and I alone can move the world,” is the common paraphrase of Archimedes. These twelve groups use the power of leverage to create tremendous change. Like a man lifting a boulder three times his weight with a lever and fulcrum, they have far more impact than their mere size or structure would suggest.

The organizations in this book seed social movements and help build entire fields. They shape government policy, and change the way companies do business. They engage and mobilize millions of individuals and, in so doing, help change public attitudes and behaviors. They nurture larger networks of nonprofits and collaborate rather than compete with their peers. They spend as much time managing external relationships and influencing other groups as they do worrying about building their own organizations. These high-impact nonprofits are not focused only on themselves but also on the relentless pursuit of results.

After a long process of studying these organizations, we began to see patterns in the ways they work. In the end, six of these patterns crystallized into the form presented here — the six practices that high-impact nonprofits use to achieve extraordinary impact.

The first four practices are more external; they represent how these groups dramatically expand their impact outside the borders of their own organizations. In observing this external focus, we also realized that working outside the organization entails special practices inside that help these nonprofits relate more effectively to their environment. This led us to discern two additional internal practices that enable high-impact nonprofits to operate successfully in the outside world and bridge boundaries.


More specifically, we learned that great social sector organizations do these six things:

1. Advocate and serve. High-impact organizations don’t just focus on doing one thing well. They may start out providing great programs, but eventually they realize that they cannot achieve systemic change through service delivery alone. So they add policy advocacy to access government resources or to change legislation, thus expanding their impact. Other nonprofits start out doing advocacy and later add grassroots programs to supercharge their strategy. Ultimately, all of them bridge the divide between service and advocacy, and become good at doing both.

2. Make markets work. Tapping into the power of self-interest and the laws of economics is far more effective than appealing to pure altruism. No longer content to rely on traditional notions of charity or to see the private sector as the enemy, great nonprofits find ways to work with markets and help business “do well while doing good.” They influence business practices, build corporate partnerships, and develop earned-income ventures — all ways of leveraging market forces to achieve social change on a grander scale.

3. Inspire evangelists. Great nonprofits see volunteers as much more than a source of free labor or membership dues. They create meaningful ways to engage individuals in emotional experiences that help them connect to the group’s mission and core values. They see volunteers, donors, and advisers not only for what they can contribute to the organization in terms of time, money, and guidance but also for what they can do as evangelists for their cause. They build and sustain strong communities to help them achieve their larger goals.

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

5. Master the art of adaptation. All the organizations in this book 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 based on external cues — allowing them to sustain their impact and stay relevant.


6. Share leadership. We witnessed much charisma among the leaders in this book, but that doesn’t mean they have oversize egos. These CEOs are exceptionally strategic and gifted entrepreneurs, but they also know they must share power in order to be a stronger force for good. They distribute leadership throughout their organization and their nonprofit network — empowering others to lead. And they cultivate a strong second-in-command, build enduring executive teams with long tenure, and develop highly engaged boards in order to have more impact.

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits; Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant; Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material is used by permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.