If you’re a nonprofit leader, you’ve likely endured and read others’ laments about the difficulties of the nonprofit world; we bemoan exhausting workplaces, questionable impact, boards that don’t get it, and general underwhelm about the state of our organizations. Our professional associations feel like support groups and an embarrassingly large portion of our sector’s publications are focused on how bad we’re all doing.
In 2016, one of Seed’s first Partnerships was a nonprofit social enterprise called Prodigy Ventures. Their founder and executive director, Steph Frances, was asking a more compelling question: what are the practices of the exceptional? Steph wasn’t interested in exploring “good enough.”
Frankly, Seed wasn’t prepared. We could answer the “good enough” questions: how do we efficiently raise our operating budget? What end-of-year appeals work? What stories and sound-bytes best solicit quick giving?
But Steph asked a more challenging question. What are gold standard practices? What organizations are worth imitating? And what does best-in-class even look like?
After five years, we’ve discovered that the best leaders are more like Steph. And there’s lots of you out there. They’re less interested in merely avoiding the bad and far more concerned with building something powerful and enduring.
The problem for leaders is that pursuing the gold-standard is difficult when there’s barely agreement as to what good looks like. Professionals searching for a lighthouse upon which to set a firm course find instead a summer night’s worth of fireflies, flickering and drifting before fading away.
Organizations that raise money aren’t necessarily the ones solving problems in lasting ways. Organizations solving problems aren’t necessarily raising money. And organizations receiving praise are not necessarily healthy places in which to work.
Over the last five years, we’ve been on the lookout for institutions worth imitating. Below are some of the rare traits of the most exceptional organizations with which we’ve worked:
They’re founded by resilient visionaries. If I had to make large bets on organizations whose impact would be worth imitating after 50 years, I’d search for evidence of resilience. How deep was the founder’s battle with the cause? How emotional and spiritual was their resolve? Were they willing to scratch and claw their way to start something beyond themselves?
At Seed, we don’t like passion projects. We trust institutions launched through struggle and survived through resilience.
Solutions are rigorous in design. Institutions worth imitating are obsessed with solving problems through scalable systems. And they work tirelessly to tweak, test, and refine the system to achieve greater missional outcomes.
As we work with more program teams, we find only a rare few who have truly created scalable solutions with the rigor that the cause deserves.
They’re concerned with activating generosity over raising money. We’ve worked with three organizations who have adopted “encouraging generosity” and “partnering through generosity” in their official mission statement. Imagine suggesting to your board of directors that the mission statement be revised to include the work of fundraising as a core reason for being.
Of course, you only integrate fundraising into your mission if you believe that its intrinsic purpose extends beyond a revenue stream.
They’re built to last 100+ years. The institutions we admire are led by innate builders. The executive directors perhaps didn’t start the organization but they’re building the organization. Institution builders integrate the essential practices of the organization and direct them towards a common, missional goal. Organizations that are built to last make decisions through a lens of lasting impact, not short-term reactions. 100 years.
Yesterday, I was on the phone with a new friend in the sector who’s been successfully leading a national organization for 10+ years. I asked him, “what organization do you imitate?”. He thought for a moment and said “I can’t think of one. It feels like we're figuring it out as we go."
For fundraising leaders, executive directors, program directors, and other sector leaders, one of the most piercing questions we must ask ourselves is “are we worth imitating?”
If another organizational leader followed us and did exactly what we do, who would they become? Would they build something that lasts? Would they solve problems? Would they incite authentic generosity?
Are you worth imitating?