Book Review: Forces for good: The six practices of high-impact nonprofits

December 9, 2014 — Leave a comment

Forces for good: The six practices of high-impact nonprofits


Reviewed by Darren Cronshaw

WHAT can good-hearted nonprofit organizations do in the face of huge sometimes seemingly insurmountable social problems?

It is easy to recognize the importance of civil society and social entrepreneurship and why it is a growing sector. Our world and communities today need the best efforts of nonprofit organizations to respond to today’s challenges. Progress has also been made in some areas, thanks to the actions of both civil society and large agencies such as the UN.

Nevertheless, the scale and complexity of the problems of the world today are only increasing – not least of which include extreme poverty, climate change, health care, archaic education systems, unjust economical and judicial systems, and who knows what epidemic challenges are around the corner?

What are the best practices for nonprofits seeking to respond? Jim Collins has written business books like Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the LeaP…and Others Don’t and with Jerry Porras, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, but what is it that make nonprofits ‘great’ and lasting in what they attempt to do to make their communities and their world a better place?

These are the questions that grab the imagination of Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. Crutchfield is a senior advisor with Foundation Strategy Group and a respected authority on scaling social innovation and high-impact philanthropy, and lives in Washington DC. Grant is a senior consultant with Monitor Institute focusing on networking, transforming legacy organizations and scaling social innovations, and lives in the Bay Area. Both have MBA and AB degrees and serve as board members and contribute to the field through writing and speaking. What they have done uniquely in this volume is an extensive and rigorous research project into ‘what makes great nonprofits great’?

The research approach was to identify and learn from twelve national-scale nonprofits that demonstrate extraordinary impact – from the Environment Defense Fund to Habitat for Humanity, Exploratorium to Teach for America. Borrowing from Collins’ research methods for businesses, they surveyed nonprofit executives to nominate nonprofits with significant impact. They followed up the survey with selected expert interviews (2004), and then case study analysis over two years (2005-2006) and pattern identification (2006). Originally publishing their findings in 2007, the authors have now substantially revised the book including evaluating how the organizations have weathered the financial crisis and expanded the sample to include case studies of thirteen smaller local organizations.

Basically they tell the stories of a number of extraordinary nonprofits and discuss the six practices they use to change their world in extraordinary ways:

1.     Advocate and Serve. The best organizations integrate grassroots programs with policy advocacy. This is consistent with a theological perspective of mission as expressing mercy as well as advocating for justice. For example, Self-Help provided loans to low-income clients, but felt drawn to leverage its expertise to advocate politically against unscrupulous lending practices.

2.     Make Markets Work. Nonprofits can invite business to ‘do well while doing good’ through better business practice, corporate partnerships and earned income. For example, Environmental Defense Fund helped McDonalds reduce its waste and use more recyclable wrapping, It is important to find the right partner and not sell out, but business brings valuable assets to the table.

3.     Inspire Evangelists. The more mentoring, community building and social networking nonprofits can put into their volunteer base, the better motivated they will be to recruit for the cause. For example, Habitat for Humanity gets people involved in physically building houses but also mobilizing their communities to solve housing problems. Founder Millard Fuller explained: “I was more interested in building a movement than an organization. They key ingredient of a movement is abandon – you can’t hold back. It takes passion, commitment, dedication. But you can only have a movement if you attract a lot of people. That’s what Habitat did – it attracted a huge following of hundreds of thousands of people” (p.103).

4.     Nurture Nonprofit Networks. Other nonprofits are not competitors. It helps the cause to share expertise, wealth and talent and give away leaders and ideas. For example, Frank Oppenheimer dreamed up Exploratorium as a museum that can be interactive and mind-expanding. Instead of hoarding or franchising their ideas, they have generously shared to the point of giving away their genius and catalyzing a worldwide hands-on science education movement.

5.     Master the Art of Adaptation. In a changing world nonprofits need to be able to listen, learn and adapt (and decide what not to do so they can focus on their sweet spot). For example, Share Our Strength sought to fight hunger, but instead of mailing the usual donors they enlisted the help of a target group who cared about food – chefs and restaurateurs – to share their time and resources.

6.     Share Leadership. The best leaders distribute leadership through their organization and networks, with good team building, succession planning, board engagement and utilizing a strong complementary second-in-command. For example, smaller nonprofits often share leadership beyond their organization, such as MEND in California that focuses on holistic care for the homeless, delivered by volunteers and other organizations who decide together the best strategy for service delivery.

The updated edition explained how the twelve original nonprofits continued to exercise the practices through and beyond recession (most of them grew ? which they needed to as social need increased), and how the practices work for local and smaller organizations as well as large nonprofits.

The book is full of practical wisdom on how to practice the principles, to plan and utilize the best experts and accessible funding, and navigate the political minefields. It argues organizations cannot achieve broad and lasting change just through internal management, but acknowledges that cannot be ignored either and so offers counsel on staffing, capital and infrastructure management.

But underlining the practical advice, the research argued greatness is achieved not from the lowest overheads or the largest reach or the highest growth, but who has the greatest impact on the world. And the best way to do that is not by importing the latest business management tools, crafting the neatest mission statement or adding more charity to ever-increasing need. The most effective way to bring change is not for any one nonprofit to build its own organization, but to collaborate with government, business, individuals and other nonprofits for broad and lasting change, undergirded by adaptation and shared leadership: “Greatness is about working with and through others…It’s about leveraging every sector of society to become a force for good” (p.320). Great nonprofit CEOs take Level 5 leadership beyond putting organisational interest ahead of their own, to putting the overall cause ahead of their organisation! Great nonprofits do not just deliver services but foster movements for lasting change and thus function as ‘catalytic agents of change’. For example, Teach for America is not just about recruiting teachers but shaking up the education establishment.

Forces for Good went beyond business organizations to nonprofits, but excluded churches and religious organizations. As a pastor of a local church, a researcher for a church denomination and a teacher of emerging leaders, I would be interested in exploring further to what extent Crutchfield and Grant’s principles apply to church and Christian educational organizations. The diagnostic tool at the end of the book that helps organizations understand where they are and how they can better apply the six principles would be a helpful place to start.

This is an excellent resource for any nonprofit or business executive, activist, researcher, volunteer or donor to help equip them and their organization be a catalytic force for good <>.

Rev A/Prof Darren Cronshaw is pastor of AuburnLife Baptist Church and Researcher with the Baptist Union of Victoria. This review is an expanded version of a review originally published in Journal of Religious Leadership 13:1 (Spring 2014).

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