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Attributes of a Successful Nonprofit


A few weeks ago, I was being interviewed by the board chair of a nonprofit . I was explaining that there is no shortage of compelling causes for our limited grant funds and that the heart of our challenge in making good grants is in discerning which organizations are the “high-quality nonprofits.” He replied by asking me another question: what makes for a “high quality nonprofit” in GAR’s view? I’m glad he asked.

Just what does a high quality nonprofit organization look like? What are the distinctive attributes that, when present, instill confidence and, when absent, lead to doubts and concerns? I answered his question that day. But it has lingered in my mind. And so, with the benefit of additional contemplation, I offer this short but meaty list. A high-quality nonprofit, in GAR’s view, is:
Focused on outcomes. A great organization focuses relentlessly on the outcomes it produces in the people it serves, and has a feedback loop to ensure that outcomes inform its work. Whether the people served are called clients, patients, audience, students, or stakeholders, a great nonprofit is focused on them and on how the nonprofit’s work impacts their lives. For every action it takes, a great nonprofit asks the questions “to what end are we doing this? How will we know if we are successful?” Resources are focused (and refocused) on the work that matters, that advances mission by changing behavior or conditions.


Aware of how its work fits within a bigger picture. A great nonprofit understands that it is a part of a larger ecosystem of players who often serve the same people and address other facets of the same complex issues. The best organizations do not deny the existence of other players; nor do they take an adversarial, “zero sum game” tack toward them. Rather a great nonprofit organization asks how it can work most effectively alongside other organizations, avoiding duplication, leveraging strengths, and aligning efforts.

Well-led. There is only one way an organization can accomplish the two charges above and that is by having strong leadership. Not only does a great nonprofit have a skilled staff leadership team that is trusted in the community; it also has a board guiding its strategy to drive the mission, bringing funds and friends to the organization, and supporting the staff infrastructure.

I could go on, but these three attributes I believe are the core of what makes some organizations truly great. As anyone who has ever worked with a nonprofit can attest, these are not easy marks to achieve! But when they are present, a funder can have great confidence that its grant funds are well invested for maximum impact in the community.