Turning Outward

by Scott London

A few years ago, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant conducted an interesting survey of nonprofit organizations to understand what makes them successful. Unlike for-profit organizations, which measure their success according to the bottom line, nonprofits judge their effectiveness based largely on social impact. What can we learn from high-impact nonprofits?

Over the course of four years, Crutchfield and McLeod Grant looked at 12 organizations: Second Harvest, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, City Year, Environmental Defense, The Exploratorium, Habitat for Humanity, the Heritage Foundation, National Council of La Raza, Self-Help, Share Our Strength, Teach for America, and YouthBuild USA. Collectively, these nonprofits have influenced corporations to adopt sustainable business practices and mobilized citizens to act on a wide range of issues, including hunger, education reform, and the environment.

The authors found that becoming a high-impact nonprofit wasn’t simply a matter of building a successful organization and then scaling it up site by site. Rather, it was by working with and through organizations and individuals outside themselves that they were able to achieve real impact. Creating change and lasting impact could not be done just by focusing within, in other words. To have real impact, organizations had to turn outward.

In practical terms, this suggests that the best nonprofits are able to mobilize various sectors of society — government, business, nonprofits, and the public — to become a “force for good.” Greatness, by this standard, is measured by how well an organization is able to work outside its own boundaries and focus its energies on catalyzing large-scale change.

The book is well-written and makes for fascinating reading. I have a fuller review of it here: