When my colleagues discuss nonprofit organizations, often they use a variety of analogies and comparisons. Sometimes an analogy is made between a nonprofit and a hospital, often discussing the nonprofit's challenges with words relating to “surgery” or at times “life support.” Sometimes they are compared to a car, comparing the various engine parts to the sections of a nonprofit. The comparison I like and most often use is comparing a nonprofit to an elementary school classroom. Having recently volunteered in my son’s Pre-K classroom I know that I could be simultaneously leading a reading group, cleaning up a mess and consoling a crying youngster. Nonprofit organizations, like a classroom, have many moving parts.

I was thinking about this after I read an interesting article in the January 2010 edition of The Atlantic. The article, by Amanda Ripley, asks the central question of “What makes a great teacher?” In getting to this question, Ripley was given access to years of data compiled by the nonprofit group, Teach for America (TFA).  Through this analysis, TFA came to some central characteristics that make up a great teacher. They concluded that great teachers:

  • Set big goals for their students.
  • Continually look for ways to improve their effectiveness and constantly reevaluate their performance.
  • Recruited students and their families into the process.
  • Maintained focus, “ensuring that everything they did contributed to student learning”.
  • Planned “exhaustively and purposefully—for the next day or the year ahead—by working backward from the desired outcome”
  • Worked “relentlessly, refusing to surrender to the combined menaces of poverty, bureaucracy, and budgetary shortfalls.”

When I looked at these characteristics I began thinking about the earlier classroom analogy between a great teacher and a great nonprofit. My thoughts on the comparisons, using additional analogies, are:

  • Most nonprofit have lofty dreams. The difference between these nonprofits and great ones is that a great nonprofit’s mission and vision should remain lofty but its closely related goals are realistic and attainable. Many nonprofits often drive in circles toward what they believe is a goal, but really are endlessly driving around that lofty dream.
  • Great nonprofits know that their march toward mission effectiveness is a constant working of a muscle, often adding a weight to the bar or altering a routine to reach their potential.  Often times ambitious nonprofits approach effectiveness like an audit, performing a Jiffy Lube exercise of creating and monitoring checklists to reach “effectiveness”.  Great nonprofits know their dashboard is on a moving trajectory that they are constantly working toward.
  • Great nonprofits create an environment in which multiple players all have parts in their symphony, each one important.  Many nonprofits have conditioned themselves to believe that real participation into their success is to involve clients and partners in an obligatory bit role, ranging in activities like providing a feedback box for staff or having client representation on an executive or board committee.  Great nonprofits know that client and partner interaction needs to be intertwined into the operational fabric of the organization.
  • Great organizations are experts at saying the word “No”.  “No” to Requests for Proposals that don’t meet the mission, “No” to a board member’s ambition that could take the organization astray, “No” to staff working from their own agenda, “No” to partners wishing to collaborate solely to obtain a resource.  While you may think that the word “No” creates an unmotivated environment, it’s actually the opposite in a great nonprofit.  The loud roar of the “Yes” significantly drowns out the diminishing whisper of the “No”.
  • An easy test I often use when looking at an organization is to see if the threads of planning at the top reach the day-to-day work in the middle or at the bottom.  Successful nonprofit organizations are able to plan and create mechanisms to monitor planning throughout the organization.  Try this exercise: Grab an organization’s strategic plan, the ED’s most recent report to the board, the job description of a middle manager and that middle manager’s latest performance review.  Can you see some symmetry?  Poor organizations have little, average organizations have some and great nonprofits have a lot.
  • Great nonprofits also say “No” to barriers that prevent them from mission success.  “No” to political roadblocks that may shut them out, “No” to technological forces that challenge them to connect and “No” to resource inflows that could be narrowing.  Like great teachers, great nonprofits are “relentless” and “refuse to surrender”.  This is what I like to call “Third Sector Grit” and is what makes the nonprofit world so great.

While I know that the classroom also has aspects that are different from a nonprofit, I do see a very close relationship to what TFA regards as a great teacher to what I regard as a great nonprofit.

Read more stories by John Brothers.