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What it takes to be a successful nonprofit

Carla Javits, president of REDF Carla Javits, president of REDF

I spent some time at the Social Enterprise Alliance Annual Summit in Chicago and was fortunate to hear a keynote speech from Carla Javits, the president of REDF, The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, a California-based venture philanthropy organization that invests in nonprofit-run businesses called “social enterprises.”

In her remarks, Carla reviewed her six characteristics of what it takes to be a successful organization – and I would add a high-performing one. I think they are very thought- provoking and I’d like to share them with you:

1. Clarity about the size and scope of the problem you are addressing. In other words, what are you trying to solve? This is a nice clear way to describe your work and I like the way she has added something about the market and the extent of the issue. In Charting Impact, we ask people to clearly and concisely state their organization’s ultimate goal for intended impact by answering the question “What is your organization aiming to accomplish?”

2. There must be an appetite for risk. High-performing organizations need be bold and make a difference. That’s not possible unless as leaders we are willing to go beyond our traditional safe borders and try new approaches to tackle persistent problems.

3. Development of Evidence. As we undertake our work, we need to demonstrate a willingness to measure results in order to improve our work. In Charting impact we ask people to describe their organization’s strategies for accomplishing their long-term goals by answering the questions “What are your strategies for making this happen?” and “What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?”

4. Network Effect. I liked this one – it’s not something we think enough about. To be successful we need to build partnerships, rather than go it alone, with funders, other nonprofit organizations and other stakeholders in our community.

5. Persistence. It takes years to succeed. At the same time, never settle – always be impatient. Our work is essential.

6. Communicate our Progress. Our communities, our funders, and the people we serve need to know how we are doing. As a sector, we need to do a better job of sharing our successes, failures and ambitions. That’s the only way to get people involved in our work.

Carla was also asked to share her metrics for measuring the effectiveness and impact of her work. She gave four:

1. Our clients. What happens to the people we serve as the result of our work? (Can they expect more jobs, less homelessness, etc.)

2. Organizations. What does it take to be a healthy nonprofit? What are the benchmarks for what it takes to be a viable, sustainable organization? (clients, revenues, etc.)

3. Enterprise. The big picture. What are our long-term objectives? (jobs created, profitability, etc.)

4. Impact on Society. As our result what can we tell society about the impact of our work? (fewer people going back to prison, saving tax dollars, more economic development, etc.

By the way, Carla thinks social enterprises offer a good antidote to the frustrations being expressed by movements like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. She points out that social enterprises have vision, ideals, and values for social good but balance those ideals with well-run institutions, with sound business models, a goal of self reliance and a focus on delivering evidence based results that create economic mobility. She thinks it is our moment to make a difference in a big way.

What do you think?

For more information about Charting Impact, please visit

Topics: Impact