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Forces for Good: The Making of Successful Nonprofits

  • Rebecca Hagelin The Heritage Foundation
  • Published Oct 19, 2007
<i>Forces for Good</i>: The Making of Successful Nonprofits

What makes The Heritage Foundation one of the most famous and widely quoted nonprofit companies worldwide? Having a top-notch staff to promote public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense helps, no question. But as the new book Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits shows, it’s more than that. Heritage succeeds because its leaders follow certain “high-impact” practices that have elevated the 34-year-old institution to the forefront of the nonprofit world.

Figuring out what those high-impact practices are matters, because success in the nonprofit world is by no means guaranteed. More than 30,000 nonprofits are started in this country every year. We’re talking about groups that are, among other things, trying to feed hungry people, clean the environment, provide housing for poor families, push for greater access to education in science and other important fields, and train young people.

But good intentions aren’t enough. Only a fraction of that 30,000 will survive. Many run aground; others manage to just get by. But a select few, like Heritage, do much more. They keep growing and growing, and they surpass even the wildest hopes of their founders.

The question is, why? What makes certain nonprofits thrive? Are they doing something differently from other nonprofits?

They are, say Forces for Good authors Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant. And, fortunately, their successful habits are something everyone can emulate. How do Crutchfield and Grant know? They surveyed thousands of nonprofit CEOs before zeroing in on the 12 highest-performing ones -- then spent two years examining that dozen in great detail.

So what are those six practices? According to Forces for Good, successful nonprofits: 

  • Work with government and advocate for policy change, in addition to providing services.
  • Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner, not as an enemy to be disdained or ignored.
  • Create meaningful experiences for individual supporters and convert them into evangelists for the cause.
  • Build and nurture nonprofit networks, treating other groups not as competitors for scarce resources but as allies.
  • Adapt to the changing environment and be as innovative and nimble as they are strategic.
  • Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good.

Take the second practice, seeing business as a partner. That’s what Environmental Defense President Fred Krupp starting doing in 1987 -- and it wound up making a huge difference to his organization, which had previously dealt aggressively with polluting companies, suing and shouting all the way.

Krupp had eaten at a McDonald’s with his kids when he looked at the Styrofoam, plastic wrappers and non-recycled paper on the table. We can help them do better, he thought. “That night,” Crutchfield and Grant write, “he and his son composed a letter to the CEO of McDonald’s proposing that the company work with Environmental Defense on a plan to reduce their solid waste.” The result: a cooperative partnership that drastically cut the amount of packaging waste McDonald’s generated.

Then there’s the sixth practice, sharing leadership. This one really caught my eye --largely because Forces for Good highlights my bosses here at The Heritage Foundation, CEO Ed Feulner and COO Phil Truluck A lot of people know Heritage but not many outside the Beltway or the corridors of power can name either of the top two men -- which is just fine with Feulner and Truluck, whose joint goal has always been to create an organization that outlives them.

 The authors make a stunning but true statement about Feulner, a man who GQ magazine has just named one of the fifty most powerful people in Washington: “He gives power away, rather than hoards it,” Crutchfield and Grant write. “We spend a great deal of time studying Heritage’s success, and came to see that this structure, with its broadly distributed leadership, provided the critical capacity Heritage needed to sustain its growth and impact.” The result, they note, is “an unstoppable organization.”

Part of what makes Heritage “unstoppable” is its success at the fourth practice -- building networks. “When Heritage was founded in the early 1970s,” Forces for Good notes, “most think tanks were quiet backwaters of research that did nothing to actively promote their agendas. Heritage changed all that.” From Heritage’s first Mandate for Leadership, which President Ronald Reagan treated as the “blueprint” of his administration, through the annual meetings of Heritage’s Resource Bank and the growth of its ground-breaking, timely research -- all of which can be accessed online -- Heritage’s collaborative approach has helped enlarge and popularize the conservative movement and changed the ideological landscape for the better. Small wonder that tens of thousands of donors -- ordinary citizens hoping to spread this “force for good” -- contribute to The Heritage Foundation annually.

Forces for Good provides many more examples of stellar leadership at work. And it is, quite frankly, a truly inspiring experience to see so many people working to help their fellow man. All of us -- whether we run a huge nonprofit or a small family -- can benefit from the lessons the authors have distilled into this powerful book. If you want to find out how you can become a force for good, look no further.

Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of “Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That’s Gone Stark Raving Mad” and runs the Web site