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  • Pat Libby

How to improve your nonprofit? Just ask the right questions.

The other day I was reminiscing about a former nonprofit CEO who habitually said “Oh good; my therapist is here,” whenever I walked into her office.

I always laughed when she said it, but the funny truth is that a big part of my job as a consultant is to tell my clients what they or others within the organization already know to be true. I suppose that is something like what a therapist does.

When I’m working on a change management project for a nonprofit – regardless of whether it is a new management plan or a strategic realignment – I find that if I ask people, they will tell me what’s working well, what needs to be fixed, and what opportunities exist. Most will also throw in their ten cents about how they would tackle these things.

The interesting part is that everyone I talk to will say more or less the same things, which points me to a collective perception and wisdom about what needs to be done.

And that will be true irrespective of where they sit on the org. chart. Or even if they don’t sit on the org. chart at all because they’re an external stakeholder.

In the simplest of terms, my job is to hold up a mirror to what is happening within that nonprofit so that the organization’s leaders can see things clearly.

So why can’t organizations do this by themselves?

Sometimes it’s because they don’t have the time to dedicate to this type of thing.

Other times it’s because the leaders don’t know what to ask.

If you’re reading this blog and thinking “Yeah, I really don’t know where I’d begin,” here are a few good conversation starters to help you get to the bottom of how things are at your organization.

You can use these questions in one-on-one meetings or focus groups with key staff, members of your nonprofit, or in conversations with board members and external stakeholders

  • What is it about this organization that made you want to be part of it?

  • What do you think it does best?

  • If you were the divine ruler of this organization, what changes would you make?

That last question makes people laugh, but I’m not joking when I ask it. It frees up people’s minds to be expansive. It gives them the opportunity to say what they really think.

After you ask these questions, what you need to do is to listen very carefully to the answers. If you take good notes, clear patterns will emerge.

Chances are you’ll look at those patterns and see ways of addressing the issues and opportunities that have been raised.

It really is that simple.

So go forth and ask!


Pat Libby Consulting is a San Diego based firm that offers nonprofit consulting and philanthropy consulting services. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about how to improve your nonprofit by listening to your constituents.


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