4 Traits of Effective Non-Profits

To-date, our family has visited, toured, and/or volunteered with over 40 non-profits. We plan to continue to serve in similar capacities in the coming 5 months, but…at a slower pace.

These four things seem to be characteristic of the more impressive organizations we visited.

1) Effective organizations hire the right people. Nearly every CEO and executive director that we interviewed was friendly, but only a small percentage of them could clearly and passionately articulate the history, mission, and strategies of their workplace. The wrong employees, even with golden hearts, will bring down the organization.

2) Effective organizations evolve. The majority of non-profits that we encountered were founded decades ago. Many of the tactics that were used then are inadequate today, yet many of the organizations persist with the same techniques. Because it worked then, they presume it should work now. For an organization to effectively influence the population they serve, they must stay relevant.

Failure to stay current also directly results in an unconvincing argument for support – causing donors to send their money elsewhere.

3) Effective organizations are willing to cut stale programs. Just like good-intended people don’t always make the best decisions, good-intended programs don’t always help the cause. There is a danger for organizations to side with what they have always done…instead of taking a risk and trying something new. If a program cannot be done well, it should be eliminated or restructured. Keeping the wrong program alive is organizational suicide. Removing it will free up funding as well as staff to focus on more productive goals. Also – it is important to remember that it is better to do a few things with excellence than to do a lot of things poorly.

4) Effective organizations are organized. The word “organization” isn’t synonymous with being organized. So many non-profits that we visited were a mess. A clothing bank should have clean clothes organized by size, season, and gender – not mounds of stained clothes waiting for someone in need to pick through. A food bank should have healthful food organized by category – not expired cans, tossed haphazardly in bags. An office space (even if modest/small) should be clean and pleasantly decorated – not cluttered with stacks of paperwork and 70’s wallpaper. Keeping order as well as cleanliness communicates more than just a well-managed facility – it gives value and respect for everyone involved, including the people needing the service.

The quick test that I give to every organization is to ask if what they are offering would be competitive in the business world. Just because there are no “profits” involved shouldn’t mean there is less quality or competence of services.

What non-profit organizations do you think would be competitive if they turned “for-profit” and sold their products/services?


  1. I had a non profit once that I was trying to help with some of their marketing and PR needs and I finally had to walk away and tell them that I couldn’t help any longer – the person running the show was incredibly friendly – but couldn’t convey the vision of the non-profit, even after I spent hours coaching her and the disorganization gave me a headache.

    I’ve found that sometimes non-profits think that because they are a “charitable” organization the necessary things for a regular for-profit business to thrive don’t apply to them, when in reality they do.

    • Exactly! It is strange so many organizations don’t realize that.

      And I understand there are “limited” funds, but for-profit doesn’t mean there is no budget. In fact, sometimes the opposite is true. A competitive business is forced to make sure every dollar they have is used to its maximum potential.

  2. Great post! I work for a non-profit (as you know) and we say that we are “business with the heart of a charity”
    An organization is only is great as their leaders. If a CEO can’t articulate the mission or history of the foundation…then the charity is in trouble.

    I am looking forward to your future posts regarding non-profits and your observations!

  3. This is a wonderful piece of education. Thanks!

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