5 Traits of a Nonprofit Ready to Take Off

Nell Edgington

In consulting with a nonprofit my role is to guide the organization to the next level. Perhaps they want to dramatically grow their impact or influence, or they want to develop a truly sustainable financial model, or they want to become a national player. Whatever their aim, my role is to help them figure out how to get from where they are now, to the larger, more effective, more sustainable future they envision.

In this work, I have increasingly found that there are 5 key traits that separate those nonprofits that grow their work and impact from those that don’t. 

These 5 traits are:

1. A critical mass of board and staff who want change.

It is not enough for the CEO to want more for their nonprofit, or a couple of board members to see a bigger role for the organization. Rather, a significant amount of both board and staff leadership must realize that the status quo just won’t do anymore. That doesn’t mean that every board member or every staff member must see the change needed. But it does mean that there is enough momentum at both the board and staff level to propel the organization toward change.

2. Agreement about what “change” means.

But you can’t just want something vaguely different for your nonprofit. Most any nonprofit wants more money, or more public awareness, or more influence. Instead, you need to be very specific as a board and staff about what “change” for your organization means. You could even have fun with it — brainstorm in a board meeting about what the details of taking your nonprofit to the next level looks like. Perhaps it is doubling the number of people you serve, or having 3-6 months of reserve funding in place, or adding some specific staff expertise, or having increased influence in specific new arenas. Articulate what “change” means for your organization and make sure that your critical mass of board and staff are all on the same page.

3. Belief that change is possible.

I am a firm believer in the power of thought. If you truly believe that change is possible, that powerful belief will then motivate your own action, it will drive you to inspire others to support that change, and it will become the guiding beacon to your nonprofit’s movement forward. But if your critical mass of board and staff don’t fundamentally believe that there is hope, that change can actually happen, then you are stuck before you even start down the path.

4. Radical honesty about the hurdles standing in your way.

Without a willingness to have open and honest (and often difficult) conversations as a board and staff, you will never find ways to overcome any challenges standing in they way of change.  Every organization at some point faces seemingly intractable problems, but those that are willing to fully face them are much more likely to figure out solutions. Perhaps your Development Director is just not right for the job, or there is fundamental flaw in the way you deliver your programs, or one of your funding sources is actually losing you money, or there are a couple of board members who are taking the organization off course, or you don’t have the right strategy for growth. Whatever the challenges are, you need to face them as a group, analyze them, and figure out a way forward.  

5. Commitment to do whatever it takes.

Key to all of this is a fierce commitment among your critical mass of board and staff to making change happen. That doesn’t mean you must go it alone, you can get help in all sorts of ways  (forging partnerships, hiring consultants, expanding your network). But you won’t get anyone else to help you if your core leadership of board and staff aren’t themselves going all in. That may mean that the board commits to being actively involved in identifying, cultivating and securing funds from new and bigger funding sources; it might mean that the staff creates and holds themselves accountable to a bold action plan; it might mean your CEO puts herself out there in bigger and more frequent ways. Board and staff are going to have to get outside their comfort zones in order for change to really happen.

The path to something bigger and better for your nonprofit is clear. Either you have these 5 traits, or you work to develop them. But without them you will remain safely and securely where you are right now.

If you would like my help to figure out the hurdles standing in your nonprofit’s way, let me know.

  • : Nell Edgington