Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, Revised and Updated (Jossey-Bass; 2012) by Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant.
Back in 2004, authors Crutchfield and Grant, faced with a dearth of literature that addressed the unique challenges to nonprofits and philanthropists in a new age, studied 12 entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations that were deemed "high impact." Out of that study came six practices that made a huge difference between success and failure.
Shortly after the first edition of "Forces for Good was published," the Great Recession hit, changing the world forever. It seemed that all bets were off. However, Crutchfield and Grant monitored the nonprofits in their original study and found that the practices continued to work, even in a terrible economy.
In this revised and updated edition of their now classic book, the authors have brought their original findings up to date and included information about many small, local organizations and how they managed to succeed in tough times even while they had to do more with less. The result is an even stronger story that will speak to any nonprofit trying to make it in the "new normal."
The Original Study
Crutchfield and Grant set up a strict formula by which they would choose the nonprofits to study. These organizations would be relatively new, having been founded between 1964 and 1994. The nonprofits would be entrepreneurial, having achieved sustained, measurable results and created systemic change on a national or international level.
The final list of nonprofits was winnowed from an extensive survey of nonprofit executives and experts on a broad range of social issues. These nonprofits represent the best of the social entrepreneur movement. They have been founded and led by a new breed of nonprofit leaders less worried about organizational charts as about combating some of the most resistant problems of our time such as poverty, educational inequality, racial and ethnic conflict, and climate change.
These are not your father's nonprofits. They are not interested in just local results nor in excelling in the art of nonprofit management. They are driven to succeed and to solve problems on a large scale. As the book's authors put it:
"The organizations in this book seed social movements and help build entire fields. They shape government policy, and change the way companies do business. They engage and mobilize millions of individuals and...help change public attitudes and behaviors....They spend as much time managing external relationships and influencing other groups as they do worrying about building their own organizations. These...nonprofits are not focused only on themselves but also on the relentless pursuit of results."
Once they had the list of 12 nonprofits, the authors spent months with each one, developing case studies that illuminated how each worked and in what way. Analyzing the resulting data, they found six things that these organizations did...some of them quite surprising and myth-shattering.
Contrary to widely held opinions, the authors found that great nonprofit organizations are not necessarily perfect regarding their management; in fact, they can seem somewhat chaotic. They saw that these nonprofits were not about brand-name awareness. Some, such as Habitat for Humanity and America's Second Harvest, have great brands but that was a side effect, not something they pursued.
The nonprofits did not have textbook mission statements taped to every wall either. They have a laser-like focus on their missions, but they do not spend time fine-tuning them. These organizations often do not score high on conventional metrics, such as efficiency (ratio of expenditures for overhead to expenditures for programs), commonly used by watchdog groups such as Charity Navigator and foundations that give grants. And they don't all have huge budgets. Size does not seem relevant when it comes to impact.
The High Impact Practices
What these organizations do have is attention to six practices:
- They both advocate and serve. Traditionally, nonprofits do one or the other but not both. Running programs allows these organizations to understand the needs on the ground which then helps them to advocate for more substantial societal change.
- They make markets work. Rather than depend on pure altruism, these nonprofits tap the power of self-interest and the laws of economics. They look for ways to work with businesses, sometimes even changing business practices along the way.
- They inspire evangelists. Good examples of this practice are Habitat for Humanity and Teach for America. Both of these nonprofits provide experiential opportunities where volunteer home builders in one case and young teachers in the other work with those they are helping. These alumni become staunch supporters and evangelists who continue to create change.
- They nurture nonprofit networks. These organizations do not see other nonprofits as competitors but rather as potential collaborators. They share resources, money, and expertise all in the name of an even more significant impact.
- They adapt. These groups are wonderfully nimble. They monitor their fields and change tactics as needed. Listening and learning as they go results in sustainable organizations that continue to be relevant.
- They share leadership. Although often founded by charismatic leaders, those leaders are not ego driven and are willing to delegate authority in the name of achieving results. They usually have a strong second-in-command, long-tenured staffs, and engaged boards.
Telling the Stories
Crutchfield and Grant have organized their book by the practices above, rather than by nonprofit organization. Thus we see how the practices play out in different ways across the organizations. As a result, there is a narrative that pulls us along as we learn about the founding, the growth, the crises, and the impact of each organization.
The book does not get bogged down in reams of data, although there are relevant charts throughout. Instead, the book is carried by the stories told—stories that are dramatic, heartwarming, and that do a good job of turning the reader into another evangelist for these outstanding organizations.
The case study approach qualifies the book for newcomers to the field. More than anything else, people with a vision, but unsure how to implement it, will be both instructed and inspired by the stories of these high-impact organizations.
Forces for Good introduces the reader to a new age in the nonprofit sector, an era that smudges the line between public and private, advocacy and program delivery, and that sets lofty and brave goals. The authors cite Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, the association for social entrepreneurs:
"Social entrepreneurs are not content to merely give a man a fish, or even teach him how to fish; these entrepreneurs won't stop until they have revolutionized the entire fishing industry."
Update: Crutchfield and Grant have each kept up their study of high impact social organizations. Crutchfield published "How Change Happens: Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don't" in 2018. Grant published "Pioneers in Justice: Building Networks and Movements for Social Change" in 2014.