Nonprofits: From Good To Great

Recently, I re-read Jim Collins’ Good to Great and his follow-up piece, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, to help glean some new insight on how to create environments in which nonprofits can achieve greatness. In the reading, I was reminded of the simple clarity of his most poignant principles and thought I’d share them and some additional thoughts with you.

Level 5 Leadership: This refers to a management style that is not only adept at organizing and motivating teams, but is also amplified by a personal will to achieve greatness for the organization versus the self.  And, within nonprofit organizations, he points out that an ability to blend an executive- with legislative-style leadership is necessary to contend with their often diffuse governance structures.

First Who...Then What: This focuses on recruiting people who are not only skilled and qualified for their paid and volunteer positions, but who also share in the organizational vision and have an inner compulsion to deliver great work simply because they can. Here Collins describes the “right people” as those who are the “best, smartest and hardest working individuals.” Then, he states, “Good to Great companies are full of people who display extreme diligence and a stunning intensity.” This message applies to the nonprofit sector, but is distinguished with what Collins says is a greater opportunity based on the likelihood of personal fulfillment in the work, as well as a greater challenge in overcoming competitive pay rates for top talent.

Confront The Brutal Facts and The Hedgehog Concept: Here, using discipline to properly identify “what you can be great at” versus core competencies; “what you are passionate about” based on the shared interest of your team; and “what drives your economic engine” through a combination of time, money and brand, is the key driver of great organizations. Collins notes, “through an autopsy without blame” an organization can examine its history to help guide future decision-making --  a difficult, but necessary journey for today’s nonprofit organization.

Culture of Discipline: Collins goes on to state that great leaders and their organizations, “never lose sight or waiver in believing in the end destination” and that they are always convinced they will be victorious at some point in time.  Quite simply, he reasons: “Know one big thing and stick with it.” For a practical application, he counsels the organization that “stop-doing lists are more important than to-do lists.” What a refreshing reminder!

Technology Accelerators: It is worth noting that Collins believes, “technology is never the reason for great change in and of itself, but you must apply it well to not be left behind.”  This point is extremely important for nonprofits that are often bombarded with stakeholder inquiries regarding how to remain relevant and can be tempted to put energies into technology because it appears to be what all of their competitors are doing.

As impressed as I continue to be with each of the works and there relevance, many questions remain, including: 

  • whether bigger is better and if properly aligned acquisitions truly improve bottom-line social impact efficiencies 
  • which internal staffing models and governance structures tend to yield superior results 
  • whether a rockstar-fundraiser CEO can be replaced with a humble servant leader in fundraising-driven organizations

...as a start to the dialogue for creating a richer inventory of best practices and benchmarks for the social sector.

Finally, Collins’ core message of the importance of why “settling for good” is never outweighed by “striving for great” is as logical as it is inspirational.  “Those who strive to turn good into great find the process no more painful than those who just settle for letting things wallow along in mind-numbing mediocrity. Yes, turning good into great takes energy, but the building of momentum adds more energy back to the pool than it takes out.” And, it makes sense that, “Tremendous power exists in...continued improvement and delivery of results...[and that] each piece of the system reinforces the other parts of the system to form an integrated whole that is much more powerful that the sum of its parts.” His careful research and development process help give weight to these axioms and others he cites that have often been discussed, but not often validated.  As we launch into Q2, let us not lose site of what can take us from good to great in our teams, departments and organizations.

If you have some thoughts on the answers to the questions I posed above or a point of view on what Collins has taught us, please share and help continue to advance the field.

--Kristian Darigan, Former Vice President