The 14 Attributes of a Thriving Non-Profit

best non-profit organizations

Non-profits are messy. It’s true even for the best non-profit organizations out there.

Not enough money… Too many cooks… An abundance of passion…

Often on this blog I write about what non-profits are doing wrong and how to fix it. After all, “non-profits are messy” is more than just my tagline — it’s my mantra. And my mission is to help non-profits clean up the mess.

But today, I want to focus on what the best non-profit organizations are doing right. My hope is this will inspire you and set an aspirational vision. Maybe your non-profit does a bunch of these really well (I hope so!), but we all have something to work on.

There are fourteen things the best non-profit organizations do really well.

Here they are…


1) The best non-profit organizations are seen as ‘workplaces of choice.’

This is my new favorite phrase.

The people who work at your organization are your most important asset. Hiring and retaining the right people is essential to serving your clients or community in the best way you can.

And by the way, turnover is really costly. The best non-profit organizations get the right people on the bus and make sure their employees never want to leave.

They pay them as well as they can, appreciate the hell out of them, are generous with comp time, and care about them like the three dimensional people they are.

And when that happens, word gets out and the really good folks take notice.

See why it’s my favorite new phrase?

2) The Executive Director is a visible, vocal, and effective public champion for the organization.

The best non-profit organizations have a strong leader. Plain and simple.

A cheerleader. A smart, eloquent voice that can lead people to two important statements: “I want to know more” and “I want to do more.”

3) Financial stability.

An Executive Director with her nose in cash flow statements worrying about payroll will never have the time or focus to create a long-term strategy.

At the best non-profit organizations, the board treasurer is an active partner with the staff finance person and a first-rate communicator so that every member of the board understands the basics of the finances of the organization regardless of financial prowess or background.

There are key financial vital signs the best non-profit organizations focus in on. Things like accounts payable, cash on hand, etc. If you want a fuller list, I have a financial dashboard I created that you can download on a post I wrote about board governance. 

4) Fundraising streams are balanced, diverse and sophisticated.

A thriving nonprofit does not have all its eggs (read: dollars) in one basket. WAY too many organizations are heavily dependent on events.

The portfolio must be diverse to be healthy. The best non-profit organizations raise funds from a good mix of individuals (large and small donations), foundations, events, online, direct mail, and government (where appropriate).

The best non-profit organizations have:

5) Board is diverse and reflective of the community it serves.

The best non-profit organizations have created boards with intention. There is a composition matrix that guides the recruitment process for proactive outreach to prospects who have the skills, experience, and attributes the organization needs.

The board also includes folks who understand the sector you’re in and folks impacted by the work you do. 

6) Board is clear about its responsibilities, takes them seriously, and executes well.

The best non-profit organizations have a smart recruitment process and a really comprehensive and engaging board orientation.

Once onboard, ongoing education about board roles makes all the difference. The best non-profit organizations also have high functioning committees that have clear charges and annual goals.

7) Programs are mission-centric.

Too many organizations simply ‘follow the money.’ A funder who offers a check so the organization can start Program X.

This program is not one the organization would have started otherwise and takes their focus away from what really matters.

The best non-profit organizations use their mission as a north star and if a program’s relevance to the mission is unclear, they have the discipline to say no.

8) Programs are evaluated to determine impact.

It’s not enough to simply have anecdotes of impact.

The best non-profit organizations have mechanisms in place to measure success. It’s key to strategic planning and yes, funders want to know too!

9) The best non-profit organizations have a clear, strong, and compelling external presence.

It’s crazy how hard nonprofit leaders find this but everything from a finely tuned “elevator pitch” to a smart website to press visibility separate the good from the great.

10) An intelligent and integrated strategy for growing and engaging stakeholders in the work.

You bet this includes a smart social media strategy (no I did not say a cool looking website) but it’s more than that. I’m talking about an organizational strategy across all departments that’s designed to invite folks in. As donors, as volunteers, as prospective board, and staff.

11) Regular performance reviews and assessments for both staff and board.

I know. You thought you had this one until you read “board,” right? You do staff reviews, sure, but the board? Are you kidding, Joan?

Uh. No. Not kidding.

The best non-profit organizations have a strong Board Governance committee that administers some kind of simple self-assessment to each board member as a catalyst for a conversation about what’s working and what each board member needs to be successful.

It’s also a mechanism for “calling the question” for a low performer.

12) Board and staff have a strong leadership pipeline and solid bench strength.

On the board side, this is why it’s so important that the recruitment committee look at attributes as well as skills. The best non-profit organizations recruit for leaders.

This is also why committees are key – they give boards the opportunity to test drive potential leaders.

As for staff, Executive Directors at the best non-profit organizations hire folks who could replace them. And then they invest in their development.

And if they have a sizeable staff, their senior staff members engage in exactly the same strategy with their staff members.

Homegrown talent – a person who has been with the staff and board — has institutional knowledge and experience. Just think about how much more someone like that brings to the table.

13) A thoughtful long-term strategy developed jointly by board and staff.

The strategies at the best non-profit organizations set a clear and inspiring vision.

Let’s be clear. I’m not talking about some 5-year plan that causes the organization to dig into weeds (often called KPIs – “key performance indicators”) – tasks to be accomplished and boxes to be checked off.

I’m not talking about a five-year plan at all. Does anyone have any idea what is happening in 5 years?

I’m talking about a destination that the board and staff can wrap their heads and hearts around, that they can raise money around, and the big steps they have to take to get there. I’m also talking about a plan that allows an organization to be opportunistic and nimble.


I’ve saved the most important for last. What is the one thing the best non-profit organizations do more frequently than anyone else?

14) The Board Chair and Executive Director have an amazing partnership.

There’s so much to unpack on this one that it could take up an entire blog post. In fact, I’ve already written two others on the subject:

I strongly suggest you read both. 


Did you find this list motivational or deeply depressing?

Before I try to move you to the former and not the latter, I want to make one other point.

These 14 indicators are not the sole purview of a large, well-funded organization. If you read this and said, “Well, when I have a $10 million budget and $1 million in cash reserves, I might have a chance here,” you need to re-read.

There are $60 million nonprofits that don’t have these attributes. The size of your organization is not relevant. That is the truth. Do not let yourself off the hook.

You can have a $400,000 budget, a kick-ass board, and a small but mighty staff and hit all the marks I’ve listed above. You find volunteers to help with marketing or recruit a board member who leads the efforts. You can listen to a podcast about how to do strategic planning without spending a fortune.

Far too often, I hear leaders say, “If only I have the resources I could….”

Here are the only resources you really need:

  • Passion
  • Boundless energy
  • Enough money and commitment to get the right staff “on the bus”
  • A clear vision that invites smart and diverse board members to the table that are willing to do what’s needed to grow the scope and impact of your work

The most important things (apart from fair pay) don’t have a price tag.

Please don’t be daunted by this list. Be inspired. Understand that it is a journey. This list is what you are aspiring to. Like your mission, it’s a different kind of North Star.

OK, your turn. Is this the right list? Am I missing anything? Wanna take something off the list?

It’s your blog, too. So join the conversation in the comments below….

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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  • Michael F. Cade

    Great post, as always! a possible additional item, Board involvement and interaction with staff is, to me, a sign of a great NFP. It can be so meaningful when a Board member takes time to meet with staff and lets them know that the Board is aware of their contributions. In a previous role, I invited Board members to our holiday party, just to have some face time with staff and the employees really reacted well.

    • Thank you Michael. #14 is the key to what you are talking about here. If you have a leadership partnership, strategies to engage staff and board fall organically from this. ANd you are absolutely right. The board should be seem as close, authentically enthusiastic and supportive of staff. Thanks again Michael.

  • Stan Harpstead

    I was referred to your blog by the ED of a non-profit where I am a Board Member. I also briefly looked at a number of your past blogs. What I found missing is a the answer to “why?” Why does the non-profit exist? I recall a former corporate CEO’s comment that “the most important element in business was having a good or service that someone wanted / needed”. Without that you are nothing but a group of staff passing around information; not creating any value.
    The champion and guardian of the “why?” should be the ED and staff that are implementing the programs on a daily basis. The Board needs to be in partnership to ensure the “why? is being accomplished (your points 7 and 8). Unfortunately an organization where the ED /staff don’t own the “why?” leaving it up to the Board Members to do the program work quickly leads to a wide list of unsustainable, poorly-effective, isolated activities that were initiated by a Board Champion without the discipline of intentional structure.
    Board (Chair) and CEO relations are critical; but pursuing the inappropriate or unfundable programs is a quick path to failure.