Just Six Things

In the book Just Six Numbers by renowned astrophysicist Martin Rees, the genesis of the universe is explained in a simple theory based on just six numbers.  Here is my simple theory of Just Six Things you really need to know to be a successful nonprofit leader:

1.  Do not start with this goal statement: “I want to start a nonprofit to …”

We have nonprofits coming out of our ears. Check to see if there is an organization doing what you want to do, or an organization whose mission complements yours. If you are convinced your idea requires a new organization, develop a business plan. Have a series of conversations with the community you plan to serve, and determine the feasibility of your idea before jumping in.

2.  Understand what constitutes a strong board and who reports to who.

Boards are a critical part of an organization’s success.  The fact that nonprofit board members are (usually) unpaid and are asked to contribute time, talent and treasure, presents unique challenges.  Without clear roles and responsibilities, board members are at risk of being a highly ineffective group of highly successful people. Too often, executive directors are tasked with the responsibility for figuring out and orchestrating how their boards should function. In fact, the executive reports to the board, not the other way around (which is why I’ve never supported executive directors as board members).  

3.  Do not subscribe to the popular notion that working for a nonprofit means taking a vow of poverty.

Why aren’t people working in the nonprofit sector paid what they’re worth?  I’m not talking about compensation commensurate with private industry, but paying more than a living wage and enough to attract and retain talent.  As long as we treat financial incentives as dirty words in nonprofits, we will not regularly see thriving, stable organizations.  We also risk losing our moral authority to speak out against poverty and pay inequity if we are underpaying and overworking our workforce. We rely on the inherent passion and commitment of staff, but burnout is inevitable when people are underpaid and their futures are unpredictable (see #5).

4.  Be able to describe to the man on the street how you will know whether you are successful in meeting your mission.

Have a pitch handy that conveys simply and efficiently what the impact (outcomes) of your efforts are, using data and metrics. Gone are the days when “if we save just one child” is persuasive to donors and other constituents.  Better to be able to say “people who graduate from our program go on to increase their household income by an average of 30% in the first year and are much more likely to have health insurance.”

5.  Keep grants in their rightful place.

Grants, especially those with large dollar amounts, may seem like the answer to all of your financial problems.  They are one piece of a larger pie. With some exceptions, they are best used to start things, test things, and evaluate things but not sustain things.  They have an expiration date, so there should either no longer be a need for the support they provide, or a solid plan for replacing the support.

6.  Have a serious talk with yourself about your comfort and ability to raise money and your comfort and ability to persuade others to raise money.

Have you heard the expression, “no one follows a reluctant leader?”  Similarly, no one wants to give money to someone who is clearly reticent about asking for it. Nonprofits struggle mightily with figuring out how to structure this function in the organization. It often ends up sitting with the person most comfortable with the function (See April Anthony’s blog last week describing how “Fundraising is distributed broadly across staff, board and volunteers”).

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