Maximizing your Social Impact: Keys to Success for Nonprofit Leaders Part 1

Maximizing your Social Impact: Keys to Success for Nonprofit Leaders  

Part 1 

1. Establish the need before starting a new organization or program. 

Never start a new program or nonprofit organization for glory or just a desire to “help people.” Instead, create a new program or nonprofit organization to meet community needs.  

A need is a discrepancy or gap between what is and what should be. Unfortunately, there are never enough resources to meet all the needs in a community. However, nonprofits play a vital role in closing some of the gaps. Everyday needs addressed by community-based nonprofits include the following: 

  • Basic Human Needs – shelters and housing programs for unhoused people; meal programs and food pantries; utility assistance programs 
  • Health – health and dental care access through community health centers; mental health centers; healthy food access in food deserts through urban farms, farmers markets, and local grocery stores; green spaces, playgrounds, and exercise facilities; drug prevention and treatment programs 
  • Education – early childhood education programs; out-of-school time programs; workforce development programs; scholarship and tuition assistance programs; arts and culture programs 
  • Community Economic Development – housing counseling, homebuyer education, and housing development; credit counseling; small business loans and technical assistance; community beautification. 
  • Arts – community festivals; visual and performance arts programs.  

Program planners conduct needs assessments to help identify and select the appropriate intervention to effectuate a certain level of change. By definition, a needs assessment is a systematic set of procedures used to determine needs, examine their nature and causes, and set priorities for future action. Establishing the conditions early in the process makes it easy to build a case for support when you begin your funding search. 

Before starting a new program or nonprofit organization, consider conducting a needs assessment to evaluate the potential market for your services: 

  • Study data from reliable sources to quantify the problem you are attempting to address. Click here for an extensive list of data sources. 
  • Research whether the program you would like to implement is already available in the community you intend to serve and explore collaboration. 
  • Speak to residents about what they see as their community needs. 
  • Speak to existing nonprofits already in the service area as they could be potential referral sources. 
  • Speak with local philanthropic organizations and civic officials about what they see from their vantage point. 
  • Conduct focus groups with people who are likely to benefit from the program/organization. 

In my early foray into community development work, Helena Lee introduced me to the Communities that Care (CTC) Model through the local Safe and Drug-Free Communities initiative. Our community team used this model to conduct a risk and resource assessment, the results of which guided our youth programming and taught us a sound approach to designing community programming. Click here for a website dedicated to the CTC Model. 

2. Get the right people on the team.  

Social impact is possible when the right people come together and focus like a laser beam on a challenge. Be deliberate and strategic as you assemble your team. Get the right team members in the correct positions for new organizations before developing the mission and vision. Leaders of existing organizations should take the time necessary to identify new team members who will fit the organizational culture and complement the existing team. Your team includes board members, staff, and volunteers. These stakeholders must subscribe to the mission and vision of the organization and commit to its success. In addition, they should have a heart for the people they intend to serve.  

Be sure to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion in the process. Research has shown that diverse teams produce more significant outcomes. Being mindful of diversity, equity, and inclusion during the organization building phase will reap great rewards later on your journey. 

Diversity is the representation of all varied identities and differences. It includes all the ways in which people differ, encompassing the different characteristics that make one individual or group different from another. Characteristics include race, ethnicity, gender, age, national origin, religion, disability, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, education, marital status, language, and physical appearance. Diversity in professions/skills is also recommended for nonprofit boards of directors. Ideally, nonprofit boards should include people from the following disciplines: law, accounting, marketing, government, clergy, and communications. 

Equity is freedom from bias or favoritism. It is the fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all people, while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups. Improving equity involves increasing justice and fairness within the procedures and processes of your organization, as well as in your distribution of resources.  

Inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can feel welcomed, respected, supported, and valued to participate fully. An inclusive and welcoming climate embraces differences and respects all people in words and actions. While an inclusive group is diverse, a diverse group is not always inclusive. Therefore, strive always to be inclusive. 

An effective team is comprised of people with different skills and different personality types. For example, consider team members who are: 

  • Results-oriented. Team members who naturally organize work and take charge; tend to be socially self-confident, competitive, and energetic. 
  • Relationship-focused. Team members who naturally focus on relationships, are attuned to others’ feelings, and are good at building cohesion; tend to be warm, diplomatic, and approachable. 
  • Process and rule followers. Team members who pay attention to details, processes, and rules; tend to be reliable, organized, and conscientious. 
  • Innovative and disruptive thinkers. Team members who naturally focus on innovation, anticipate problems, and recognize when the team needs to change; tend to be imaginative, curious, and open to new experiences. 
  • Pragmatic. Practical team members, hard-headed challengers of ideas and theories; tend to be prudent, emotionally stable, and level-headed. 

Click here for an insightful Harvard Business Review article with more information on personality types. There are many personality type assessments. However, True Colors is one of the simplest that I have completed. Click here for more information. 

3. Diversify your funding sources 

As the old saying goes, “do not put all of your eggs in one basket.” Funding fluctuations stress programs and organizations and make it difficult to provide consistent quality services. High-performing staff may leave or be laid off if funding shortfalls are anticipated. No one likes to be in this kind of environment. This reality emphasizes the need to secure funding from diverse sources to sustain your efforts. Sources could include the following: 

  • Federal government agencies (refer to 
  • State government agencies  
  • National foundations ( 
  • Regional foundations 
  • Community foundations (including donor-advised and donor-designated funds) 
  • Family foundations 
  • Corporate philanthropies 
  • Businesses/Corporations 
  • Events (e.g., galas, golf tournaments, etc.) 
  • Giving circles 
  • Service clubs and associations 
  • Religious organizations  
  • Workplace campaigns (e.g., United Way) 
  • Fees for services 
  • Individuals 

Federal government agencies usually offer the most significant grants. However, it is essential not to rely on these support sources solely and build local funding relationships. Specific federal government funding streams are often linked to a particular political administration. Be mindful of this as you plan. For example, faith-based initiatives were once in vogue during the George W. Bush administration. One rarely hears this term anymore. 

Planning for the sustainability of funding should be a strategic process that addresses the long-term needs of your program and organization. The sources of funds to meet your budget will need adjustments based on changing trends in economic and political cycles. Therefore, a defined fundraising plan with an adaptive timeframe that maintains critical infrastructure is essential for success. Click here for a sample of a fundraising plan that I have used over the years. 

4. Tell your story. 

Make time to tell your story and control the narrative about your program. Often, nonprofit leaders are so swamped doing the work and addressing needs that they forget to pause and tell their stories. I know from experience that this is hard to balance, but it should be a priority. Here are three tips for telling your story. 


Cast a Big Vision. Your nonprofit may only be working in a tiny corner of a small town, but for the people you serve, your work is life changing. When telling your nonprofit story, show people the lives you have changed, the outcomes you have achieved, and the work that would be possible if you had more resources at your disposal.  

Appeal to Core Human Values. Regardless of our differences, we all care about the same things like safety, freedom, good health, and a better life for our children. So, in addition to showcasing the features of your work, such as how many research studies you run or the number of hot meals you serve each day, focus on the benefits of your work—the core human values. The best way to do this is to make sure stakeholders understand the big picture about your work. For example, if your nonprofit is providing home heating assistance, be sure to tell stakeholders that you are keeping families safe from the cold and allowing them to live healthy, comfortable lives. Yes, you can tell stakeholders about your programs, but be sure they understand the big vision behind your work: to keep families warm and healthy. 

Use Real Examples and Outcomes. Statistics and outcomes do have their place in your nonprofit’s story, but primarily as support for your overall, big picture vision focused on one or more core human values. When using statistics and discussing outcomes, one of the best things you can do is to put a face on the numbers by relating them to real-life examples and stories about your work. For example, if you are telling stakeholders about the number of scholarships you gave out this past year, highlight the story of someone who received your scholarship. Nonprofit communications build an emotional connection with the donor. Real-world examples, stories, and outcomes are a great way to show how your work has changed lives. 

End of Part 1 

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