Forces for Good: Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

If you're reading this, you already know that the nonprofit sector is big business and has been studied, poked at, and examined by business writers trying to uncork the genie of success for an industry often criticized for its lack of imagination and aversion to risk. We've all seen the studies focused on leadership, on the need for measurement, on the importance of marketing; we're all familiar with the attempts to examine nonprofits through the lens of for-profit business practices. What we haven't seen is anything that systemically reinvents the paradigm and fundamentally changes how we look at what it means to be a nonprofit.

That is, until now. With Forces for Good: Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant have written a thoughtful, highly readable call to arms for any nonprofit leader looking to affect real social change.

The nonprofit sector (what Crutchfield and McLeod Grant refer to as the civicsector) is the third-largest component of the American economy; with more than $1 trillion in annual revenues and $4 trillion in assets, the sector beats out banking, construction, telecommunications, and accounting. But while there are 1.5 million nonprofits out there doing a lot of good, their collective impact on society — what Crutchfield and McLeod Grant call the achievement of qualitative and permanent social change has been limited. Moreover, the largely incremental changes for which the sector can take credit ("Band-Aids," in Crutchfield and McLeod Grant's formulation) have been largely reactive and/or achieved at a remove from broader marketplace forces and/or public interest.

It doesn't have to be that way, write Crutchfield and McLeod Grant. To illustrate their point, they highlight a dozen organizations that are as varied in their size and area of interest as they are in their approach to problem solving. Groups like the Heritage Foundation (which helped usher in the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s) or Environmental Defense (which was instrumental in bringing about passage of the Clean Air Act) might well appear to be at opposite ends of the nonprofit spectrum. But what they have in common, say Crutchfield and McLeod Grant, is an uncommon focus on outcomes and results and the drive to do what it takes to succeed.

In making that argument, the authors insist that change which is incremental and reactive is no longer acceptable; in fact, they say, it is incumbent on nonprofit organizations working at the intersection of public action and the marketplace to press vigorously in multiple directions to achieve real change as quickly as possible. To that end, Crutchfield and McLeod Grant's book focuses on a new generation of social entrepreneurs eager and willing to set audacious goals, cross lines previously thought uncrossable, and partner with anyone willing to help them convert those dreams into reality.

In the process, Forces for Good blows away everything you thought you knew about what makes a great nonprofit tick. What Crutchfield and McLeod Grant didn't know, and what they came to realize through their research, was that highly effective nonprofits seldom fit our expectations of what a well-run organization should look like. Management structures in such organizations are far from perfect (and are sometimes chaotic); big ideas are less important than how those ideas are implemented; and an organization's size has no correlation to its ability to affect change.

So if the usual hallmarks of a successful nonprofit are less important than we thought and maybe even irrelevant, what are the practices of a truly high-impact nonprofit? The guidance Crutchfield and McLeod Grant offer seems simple enough:

  • Work with government and advocate for social change;
  • Engage the marketplace and work with business;
  • Transform your supporters into evangelists;
  • Treat other nonprofits as partners, not as competitors;
  • Adapt and innovate whenever necessary; and
  • Empower others to lead.

But while their advice may seem obvious, it is, the authors say, another thing to put such ideas into practice.

In Crutchfield and McLeod Grant's schema, the organization itself is not important; what really matters is how a nonprofit uses its resources toward achieving its goals. High-impact nonprofits, the authors write, lead by example, adapt to move their agenda forward, and never stand still. Indeed, critical to their success is their ability to operate on all six fronts simultaneously. But while many organizations will look at the list and recognize elements of their own practice, Crutchfield and McLeod Grant argue that the number of nonprofits which understand the need to move on all fronts with dispatch is small. Which is a shame, in their view, because only such a maximal approach holds out the possibility of achieving real systemic change.

Again and again the authors return to the idea of leverage (i.e., influence exceeding an organization's actual capacity) as the key to nonprofit effectiveness. More than anything, in fact, Forces for Good is about how organizations can learn to create leverage. No matter how big a nonprofit may be or how admirable its cause, the market, government, and public opinion are not easily moved. But by engaging with other nonprofits, businesses, and the public sector, the authors write, small organizations can achieve extraordinary results. How else does one explain how , with an annual budget of just $18 million, helped secure nearly a billion dollars in federal housing funds? Or how , a community development lender and real estate developer with an annual budget of $75 million, could create a network of lending partners that has provided $4.5 billion in loans to low-income families and businesses? It's leverage, not good intentions, argue Crutchfield and McLeod Grant, that will transform society.

It remains to be seen whether the social entrepreneurs that populate this brave new civic sector are a true vanguard or whether organizations such as are the wave of the future. While there's no denying the astonishing success of such organizations and entrepreneurs in recent years, the nonprofit sector continues to be dominated by inflexible, slow-moving organizations in competition for scarce resources. What's more, the charity business is conservative and custodial by nature; if it's already a challenge to cultivate donors, how many organizations will be willing to adopt new practices and risk alienating their traditional sources of income?

Time will tell. But if this new breed of social entrepreneur is here to stay — and there is little reason to believe otherwise — the rest of us must be prepared for a radically different future in which the parochial interests of our organizations give way to the results- and outcomes-oriented world of the high-impact nonprofit. Welcome to the revolution.