5 Tips for Nonprofits: Engaging the Whole Organization to Take on Society’s Challenges

5 Tips for Nonprofits: Engaging the Whole Organization to Take on Society’s Challenges

Violence. Poverty. Domestic abuse. Illiteracy. Homelessness.

As these critical issues continue to affect society, it is largely the role of nonprofit organizations to find innovative, workable solutions. But how can nonprofits effectively do their work in today’s under-resourced environment that undermines their ability to grow and succeed?

At the Kellogg School of Management we believe that today’s business leaders must develop a strategy that crosses every business function — marketing, sales, operations, human capital, etc. — to grow and scale the organization. The same is true for the nonprofit sector; growth and success come as a result of engaging the whole organization. Here are five strategies to help nonprofits achieve their mission and solve some of society’s most intractable problems.

  • Effectively engage your board. As key leaders of the organization, board members need to be engaged in the work of your organization and its vision for the future. “Mission moments” can connect board members to the real work of the organization beyond the administrative matters that usually occupy board agendas. Scheduling a board meeting at a client site, hearing directly from recipients of your services, and volunteering on-site are all ways that board members can deepen their focus on and appreciation for the organization’s mission. The YWCA Evanston/North Shore has a unique board engagement opportunity for members who want to learn more about their services for victims of domestic violence. “Board members can spend a few hours observing the legal advocacy program, which pairs skilled volunteers with women seeking orders of protection against their abuser,” says board member Jennifer Paul. “This is very powerful in that most survivors don’t know where to even start in navigating the court system and may feel scared to face their abuser, so the court advocates play a critical role. The YWCA has an office at the Skokie Courthouse for the advocates and the women and men who are seeking help.”
  • Look for collaboration opportunities. Today’s problems are complex and often require the collaborative efforts of multiple organizations working together to create innovative solutions. To tap this energy and expertise, explore relationships with organizations that provide complementary services to yours. A terrific example of collaboration in practice is Christopher House’s participation in the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative. This alliance of seven education and human service organizations shares best practices and uses data to drive decision making to improve programming. “At Christopher House, we are committed to excellence and continuous improvement to get the best outcomes for low-income children and families,” says Lori Baas, CEO of Christopher House. “Our work with the Chicago Benchmarking Collaborative enables us to compare our measurable results against others in the field through an ongoing commitment to collaboration with each other. This comparison leads to the sharing of ideas, what’s working and what’s not for all of the partners. Performance improvement plans are created and ultimately, each of the partners are stronger.” Clearly, utilizing upstream and downstream partnerships can increase overall impact.
  • Invest in professional development for your leaders. To engage in the hard work of creating innovative solutions to complex problems, your team needs to be supported. One important way is by providing them with resources and training to develop their leadership and management skills, which will pay off with leadership today — and even greater impact within the sector tomorrow. Kellogg’s Center for Nonprofit Management and other providers offer a wide range of learning opportunities at a variety of price points. Another example of professional development is the Allstate Foundation’s Greater Good program that brings together groups of nonprofit leaders from across the country to build their leadership and management skills. With the support of the Allstate Foundation, Greater Good provides academic learning, executive coaching and other development support to help transform leaders for the nonprofit sector.
  • Strategically invest in infrastructure. As Kellogg accounting professor Marian Powers says, “Organizations cannot shrink to greatness.” However, investments in infrastructure are often difficult for nonprofits to sustain. Too often, nonprofit organizations worry about “overhead costs” and are reluctant to make the staff and operational investments that are necessary for growth. Research into this “overhead myth” has consistently reaffirmed that “Good charities spend more on administration than less good charities spend;” (Giving Evidence, 2013) and “Inadequate infrastructure compromises organizational effectiveness.” (Nonprofit Cost Overhead Project) To grow and succeed, leaders must make those investments to enable the mission to flourish.
  • Focus on your impact not your outputs. Much has been said about impact in today’s world. Increasingly donors and other stakeholders are supporting those organizations that quantify their impact and concretely illustrate the difference they are making in the lives of their clients. Often nonprofits focus on “what” they are doing instead of asking “so what?” The Night Ministry in Chicago is illustrating the answers to “so what?” questions quite well. Annually, they publish an impact report that provides not only the outputs — how many young people used their services — but also the impact — how those relationships led to opportunities. Sharing those metrics and measures with internal and external audiences engages all in the mission of the organization. In short, measure what matters and be able to articulate the results to internal and external stakeholders.

To take on the challenges facing society today, nonprofit organizations must be able to grow and scale. By engaging the entire organization and focusing leadership and resources, nonprofit leaders can pave the way to reaching successful outcomes for the benefit of all.


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