Winners don’t tell fad stories

When times are tough, as is the lot of many nonprofits, it’s tempting to chase the next best management theory, fundraising strategy, or planning model. Who knows? That big idea could be the one that saves the day.


In contrast, leaders in high-functioning organizations do more than hope for the best. They create their own good results through a “relentless focus on timeless fundamentals.” No fad stories for them. They’re committed to “matters of eternal vigilance.”

That’s the thesis of a “Viewpoint” article in the Spring 2014 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The authors base their piece on conversations with winners of the Henry R. Kravis Prize in Leadership, an elite group of nonprofits (ten to date) whose “impact in the world is significant, transformative, and proven.”

In “Fundamentals, Not Fads,”  super achievers are described as attentive to five key areas of organizational effectiveness. I encourage you to read the SSIR article for yourself. In the meantime, here are the five with commentary of my own on the side.


1.  Mission matters most. Leaders within exemplary organizations are ultra-committed to stewarding the mission. They’re especially vigilant for the siren song of donors bearing gifts with strings. “There is general agreement on the need to say ‘No, thank you” to funders whose grants might cause mission creep.”

2.  Fundraising is fundamental. You’ve likely heard the adage, “no money, no mission.” For most nonprofits, this reality requires an investment in fundraising. If you question the advice, consider this rule of thumb: “Every dollar spent on development will raise four dollars in funding for the organization.”

3.  A better board will make you better. I’m delighted to see a point that I preach regularly included in the list of fundamentals.  The authors urge boards to “engage deeply and directly in the work of their organizations,” to which I say amen and amen.

4.  Nothing succeeds like succession. From day-one of a new CEO’s tenure, the board should have a succession plan in mind – just in case. Similarly, boards need to plan for key transitions within their own ranks. Even a short break in leadership – from the corner office to the board room – can have a long-lasting negative impact.

5.  Clear measurement counts. Stories are great, but as the authors note, “too many nonprofits fail to appreciate the benefits of rigorous performance measurement.” Exemplary organizations validate and reinforce anecdotes with data.

Just a handful of nonprofits will ever vie for the Kravis Prize in Leadership. But every day, year in and year out, faith-based organizations strive for an even greater prize — the high calling of God.

Passing fads won’t do when eternal outcomes are on the line. Your holy purpose demands attention to timeless fundamentals.

For a few more fundamentals, see:

Before attaching organizational culture, read this

Finding your organization’s future in its past

10 indications your organization is healthy and doing well

What's your take on this topic?

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