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  • Pat Libby

Is your nonprofit the best at what it does?

Updated: Feb 27

Nonprofit leaders are passionate about what they do. The drive to make “it” better – no matter what the “it” is, is what makes them tick.


That same passion can also lead to willful ignorance. This happens when an organization’s leaders become so immersed in what they do that they don’t take the time to look at other models, practices, and organizations that do similar work.   


I’ve seen this happen a lot with new start-ups. It’s not uncommon for someone to be profoundly affected by a personal experience that inspires them to dive headfirst into the deep end of the passion pool.


They need to find a cure!

Save the planet!

Heal trauma!

Make scientific discoveries!

Save animals!

Help the disenfranchised!

Educate people!

Make groundbreaking art!


So, they submerge into their chosen world and if they’re lucky they’ll find supporters who have the time, financial resources, or both to help them advance their cause. The frantic paddling begins after they surface and realize all that’s involved in operating a nonprofit.  


Willful ignorance also happens with well-established nonprofits. It’s common for leaders to get so entrenched in what they want their organization to accomplish that they neglect to look outside of themselves for answers. It’s easy for a “successful” nonprofit that is longstanding and rich in resources and reputation to think that it already knows everything it needs to know.   


The consequence of operating with blinders on is that it often stifles progress on the very issue that the organization is dedicated to. It stymies discussion on the question “Are we the best we can be?”  


So, how do you find out if your nonprofit is the best at what it does?


The simple answer is by asking questions, gathering data, and doing outreach. You need to:


1. Get feedback from your constituents in the form of surveys, focus groups, or one-on-one meetings (depending upon the type of work you do) to find out what’s working well and what could be working better.


If you are part of a social service agency this means getting information from your clients. If you engage in policy work this means getting information from partner organizations. If you are an arts organization this means getting information from your artists and patrons. The point is you need to probe the people you serve to find out if your work is on target. If you don’t serve people and instead have a different type of cause-related mission, you’ll need to talk to leaders of other organizations who have a grounded understanding of the impact of your work.


This information gathering needs to be done well to ensure that the feedback you receive is genuine and useful. Once you receive it, use that information to retool what you’re doing or think about new programs or efforts that would better serve your constituents.


2. Take a step back to look at what others in your field are doing. Since it is highly unlikely that your organization has a unique mission, you’ll need to do some research on what others who share your passion are doing to advance this work. You are likely to gather some terrific new ideas by opening your mind to the possibility that there may be other excellent models for your work. In fact, you may even find nuggets of good practices from organizations that don’t operate as well as you do overall but do one thing really well.  


Ask yourself, what personnel do these organizations use to deliver their programs? How do they make use of volunteers? How do they measure their success? What types of organizational partners do they have? 


3. Think expansively about new types of partners. There are many hidden gems among us. Some nonprofits have busloads of volunteers to deploy; many academics want their research put to good use or are interested in applying their skills to a cause; some organizations have large classrooms or performance spaces that they are eager to share; some nonprofits have deep public policy expertise – the list of possibilities is endless!


By thinking expansively about other resources that are available in your community, you might discover new partners who can add dimension and impact to your existing work.


Being the best at what you do means asking the best questions, listening deeply to what others have to say, making changes that reflect what you’ve learned, and doing it again and again.




Pat Libby is a change management consultant working principally with nonprofit corporations. She is author of The Empowered Citizens Guide: 10 Steps to Passing a Law that Matters to You, Oxford University Press, The Lobbying Strategy Handbook, second edition, Oxford University Press, and Cases in Nonprofit Management, SAGE. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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