Forces For Good:
The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

A Review by Scott London

By Leslie Crutchfield &
Heather McLeod Grant
Jossey-Bass, 2008. 313 pages. $34.95.

Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant spent four years studying successful nonprofits that have managed, often in the face of tight budgets, limited marketing, and imperfect leadership structures, to demonstrate remarkable levels of social impact. They looked at twelve 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.

Crutchfield and McLeod Grant found that becoming a high-impact nonprofit was not 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. They were surprised by this finding because it flies in the face of traditional management theory. "The vast majority of social sector management books focus on things that don’t always lead to greater impact," they point out. "We found little to support common myths of nonprofit excellence."

They emphasize that much of the literature on nonprofit management focuses on issues that, although important, do not determine whether an organization has real social impact. They single out six of these issues in particular: 1) the myth of perfect management (many of the organizations they studied are highly successful without being exemplary models of accepted management principles); 2) the myth of brand-name awareness (while some of the groups they studied are household names, several of them do not focus on marketing at all); 3) the myth of the breakthrough new idea (while some of the organizations have come up with radical innovations, others have succeeded in taking old ideas and adapting them to their particular needs); 4) the myth of textbook mission statements (while all of the nonprofits look to compelling missions and vision-statements, most of them are too busy living their values to be fine-tuning their mission statements on paper); 5) the myth of high ratings on conventional metrics (many of the groups did not score well on traditional measures of nonprofit efficiency because they do not adhere to standard metrics such as overhead ratios); and 6) the myth of large budgets (some of the nonprofits have made a big impact with large budgets, but others have achieved similar impact with much less money).

According to Crutchfield and McLeod Grant, conventional measures of nonprofit excellence can only go so far in describing high-impact nonprofit organizations. A better gauge, they say, is the extent to which they are able to mobilize the various sectors of society — government, business, nonprofits, and the public — to be 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. Each of the twelve organizations they studied were able to do this to great effect.

Crutchfield and McLeod Grant go on to identify six key practices that enable high-impact nonprofits to operate successfully in the outside world and bridge boundaries:

  1. They advocate and serve. Nonprofits tend to do one of two things: they work with government and advocate for policy, or they provide services. High-impact nonprofits do both.
  2. They make markets work. Great nonprofits harness market forces and see business as an influential partner in creating social impact, not as an adversary to be disdained or ignored.
  3. They inspire evangelists. High-impact nonprofits create meaningful experiences for individual supporters and convert them into evangelists for the cause.
  4. They nurture nonprofit networks. While most groups pay lip service to collaboration, many of them regard other nonprofits as competition for scarce resources. But high-impact organizations help the competition succeed, building networks of nonprofit allies and devoting time and energy to advancing their common work.
  5. They master the art of adaptation. Great nonprofits are not only strategic but highly innovative and adaptive.
  6. They share leadership. High-impact nonprofits empower others to lead, develop highly engaged boards, and mobilize people outside their organizations in order to be a stronger force for good.