Cartoon_pictureGreatness has more to do with how nonprofits work outside the boundaries of their organizations than with how they manage their own internal operations.

To paraphrase Archimedes, “Give me a lever long enough and I alone can move the world.” Best organizations use the power of leverage to create change. In physics, leverage is defined as the mechanical advantage gained from using a lever. In business, it means using a proportionately small initial investment to gain a high return. The concept of leverage captures exactly what high-impact nonprofits do. Like a man lifting a boulder three times his weight with a lever and fulcrum, these nonprofits are able to achieve greater social change than their mere size or structure would suggest.



After a long process of studying nonprofits,Heather McLeod Grant and Leslie R. Crutchfield from Stanford University discovered patterns in the ways they work. In this issue are described three of the six best practices that high-impact nonprofits use to achieve extraordinary impact:


1. Serve and Advocate: High-impact organizations may start out providing great programs, but they eventually realize that they cannot achieve large-scale social change through service delivery alone. High-impact organizations bridge the divide between service and advocacy. They become good at both. And the more they serve and advocate, the more they achieve impact.


Nonprofits, like America’s Second Harvest and Habitat for Humanity, began by providing services, such as feeding the hungry or housing the poor, and added advocacy only after a decade or more. Other groups, like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Heritage Foundation, and Environmental Defense, began with advocacy and later added grassroots programs or services to expand their impact to the local and state level. Some groups, like City Year and the National Council of La Raza, did both from the outset, despite pressure to specialize, and recognized early that advocacy and service reinforce each other.


2. Make Markets Work: High-impact nonprofits have learned that tapping into the power of self-interest and the laws of economics is far more effective than appealing to pure altruism. No longer content to rely on traditional notions of charity, or to see business as an enemy, these nonprofits find ways to work with markets and help companies “do good while doing well.” They influence business practices, build corporate partnerships, and develop earned income ventures to achieve social change on a grander scale.


For example, Environmental Defense, a New York-based organization, worked with McDonald’s in the 1980s to make the fast food giant’s packaging more environmentally sound. Since then, Environmental Defense has worked with hundreds of companies – from FedEx to Wal-Mart Stores – often scaling its innovations to change practices in an entire industry. Although these partnerships are becoming more common among environmental groups, Environmental Defense was an early pioneer in this area.


3. Inspire Evangelists: High-impact nonprofits build strong communities of supporters who help them achieve their larger goals. They value volunteers, donors, and advisers not only for their time, money, and guidance, but also for their evangelism. To inspire supporters’ commitment, these nonprofits create emotional experiences that help connect supporters to the group’s mission and core values. These experiences convert outsiders to evangelists, who in turn recruit others in viral marketing at its finest. High-impact nonprofits then nurture and sustain these communities of supporters over time, recognizing that they are not just means, but ends in themselves.


For example, Habitat for Humanity attracts what we call “super-evangelists” like former President Jimmy Carter – people who by virtue of their personal accomplishments, famous names, and vast social networks can help take a non profit to the next level. By serving on the board and as a spokesperson for the organization, Carter helped propel it from a grassroots non profit to a global force for change.

According to McLeod Grant and Crutchfield’s research, the high-impact nonprofits studied are satisfied with building a “good enough” organization and then focusing their energy externally to catalyze large scale changes.