What makes a nonprofit effective? What makes them so good at what they do? Effective nonprofits all have some key traits in common. And just as Stephen R. Covey did in his landmark book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Mightycause defined the traits effective nonprofits have in common in a recent webinar.

Read on to find out what habits effective nonprofits all share and how you can incorporate them in your work!

Defining Effectiveness

dictionary definition of the word effective

It’s important to understand what we mean by “effective nonprofits” before diving into the habits they share. So, what is an “effective nonprofit?”

  1. Effective nonprofits create transformational change in their area of concern
  2. Effective nonprofits engage people in their cause
  3. Effective nonprofits stay inspired and inspire others
  4. Effective nonprofits run their organization in accordance with their mission and principles
  5. Effective nonprofits are thought leaders in their field
  6. Effective nonprofits are not only able to sustain their operations, but are able to grow

Why Examine Effective Nonprofits?

Effectiveness is not innate for most nonprofits. Running a nonprofit is hard work, and it can be hard to find your footing as a fledgling nonprofit. But a nonprofit can become more effective and grow as an organization by studying what nonprofits that are already effective do — and replicating what they do right. This doesn’t mean simply copying them or following the leader, but looking at what habits and traits they have that add to their effectiveness. And then finding a way to implement those habits in a way that feels authentic to your mission and organization.

The more you hone your own operations and incorporate habits that have helped other organizations create change, the closer you will be to having the huge impact on your area of concern you set out to have when you formed your organization.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofits

1. They proactively engage with their donor base.

We often talk about “donor engagement” with a particular end in mind: a donation. But highly effective nonprofits know that engaging with their base is about more than getting a donation — it’s about building a relationship with a donor. So they are always talking to their supporters. Whether it’s online, at community events, at their brick-and-mortar facilities, on the phone, they make a point of making them active participants in their work and their mission.

Effective nonprofits treat their donors as friend of their organization they they want to keep getting to know. They invite them to events, they ask what’s on their minds, they get them involved. And they know that donors are individuals, and make note of what they learn about their donors in detailed donor records, so they can communicate with them as effectively as possible.

But what about donor fatigue?!

Effective nonprofits combat donor fatigue in a few ways:

  1. They communicate with donors outside of asks. This means that they’re not behaving like a friend who only contacts them when they want something from them. They’re sharing news and updates about their work, stories from the field, inviting them to events and letting them know how to get involved. That way, when it’s time for an ask, the donors are ready — because the nonprofit has spent lots of time cultivating a strong relationship with them.
  2. They treat their donors as individuals. So, if a donor hates phone calls, they don’t call them. And if a donor prefers fewer emails, they send fewer emails. They personalize their correspondence with them and give donors the option of being communicated with in a method and frequency that works for them.

But the biggest things effective nonprofits do is that they don’t let a fear of donor fatigue keep them from proactively reaching out.

Learn More About Donor Engagement

The Mightycause Guide to Donor Engagement and Retention

Mightycause Tools to Help

Subscribers to Mightycause Premium have access to detailed Supporters records, which catalog your interactions with supporters, allow you to create custom tags for easy segmentation and add notes to a supporter’s record. Better record-keeping can be the first step to better communication with donors.

Donor Management on Mightycause

Learn more at a group demo for Mightycause Premium!

2. They set and work toward high-level goals.

At effective nonprofits, goal-setting is of the utmost importance. The goal-setting process is thorough, thoughtful and focused on creating impact.

Effective nonprofits let their high-level goals be the guiding light in all that they do. So, this process is taken seriously — goals are proposed, discussed, written down and a metric to evaluate success if assigned to each and every goal.

The Goals Effective Nonprofits Set

While it can vary between nonprofits, most effective nonprofits have these goals outlined:

  • Long-term goals
  • Short-term goals
  • Programmatic goals
  • Financial goals

These goals are all SMART goals — even goals focused on hard-to-quantify things like community impact are all measured.

Mightycause Tools to Help

When Mightycause was designing our Advanced tools for nonprofits, we knew analytics would be important. So, we created a tool you can use to view and monitor the analytics that are most important to nonprofits. We crunch the numbers for you, so you don’t have to waste precious time poring over spreadsheets.

Advanced Fundraising Analytics

Get your free trial of Premium and let our Analytics help you work toward your donation-related goals!

3. They prioritize.

This habit goes hand-in-hand with setting goals. For effective nonprofits, it’s all about achieving goals. The goals they outline are everything. They set out to achieve them with laser focus. And they’re successful because they prioritize projects, programs, partnerships and work that will help them achieve their goals above everything else.

Being effective at prioritizing is essential to being effective as an organization. That’s because it’s so easy to get lost in the day-to-day work and lose focus. There’s always some way to help out, someone in need, someone asking. But what these highly effective nonprofits do that keeps them from losing focus is find ways to prioritize tasks and work that gets them to their high level goals.

The Bucket Method

One way way nonprofits can prioritize is called “The Bucket Method.” In this method of prioritization, you’ll identify a handful of theoretical “buckets” (no more than 5) to sort incoming requests and projects into. This is how it works:

  1. Define your “buckets” based on your high-level goals
  2. Does a program, initiative, task or request fit into any of your buckets?
    1. If yes, which one? Sort it and get to work!
    2. If no, does it help you toward your high-level goals? If it doesn’t, say no or find another solution.

So, for instance, if you run a food bank, these might be your buckets: Feeding Our Community, Increasing Food Access, Advocating for Food Access. When a request or proposal comes in, you’d evaluate it to see if it fits into any of those buckets. Let’s say a request comes in for helping pass a ballot measure that will provide free lunches for more kids in a school district or county. That fits into two of your buckets (Increasing Food Access and Advocating for Food Access) so you’d want to say yes to that request. Then, another request comes in from a local news station that wants to interview you for a story about canned food drives and charitable giving. This might fit into your Advocating for Food Access bucket — but you ask yourself, “Will a 15-second clip on the nightly news that is not dedicated to our work help us achieve our high-level advocacy goals?” The answer is no, so you can respond back to the station with a polite no, and perhaps the name of someone you know who might be able to provide the interview … and to ask them if they want to cover the ballot initiative that will help feed more children in your community.

The Bucket Method works by helping your nonprofit focus on the work that is most important to creating impact, and cut through what can turn into busy work that eats up your time and focus but doesn’t advance your mission.

Commander’s Intent

Commander’s Intent is a very simple prioritization technique. It’s a military term that succinctly and clearly states an end goal. In the business and nonprofit world, having a commander’s intent is a great way to communicate your high-level goals to everyone in your organization (without showing everyone the details if they don’t need them) and stay focused. Commander’s Intent comes from the top (for instance, your executive director or board) and filters down.

If you are running an animal rescue, Commander’s Intent might be saving more animals in your community. So, let’s say you have an employee who thinks you should provide coffee and tea for visitors to your adoption center. You’d use your Commander’s Intent to ask, “Does providing coffee and tea to visitors allow us to help more animals in our community?”

The answer is no. While it’s a nice gesture, it’s an expense that does not have any measurable impact on your rescue’s ability to help more animals in your community. So, Commander’s Intent can help you shelve that idea.

4. They build relationships.

Relationship-building is at the center of what effective nonprofits do. They realize that they can do more when they have a strong network of support. Through stewarding supporters and finding business partners, they are able to do more together than they are alone.


Stewarding is the process of building a relationship with a donor from the time they make their first gift. It’s about getting to know the donor, finding out what drives them and getting them involved at your nonprofit.

Stewarding can look different for different types of supporters (think one-time donors versus major gift donors), but it’s important to steward all existing supporters of your nonprofit. That’s because it takes far fewer resources and effort to build relationships with current supporters and secure their ongoing support than it does to find new people to support you. And when you are good stewards, you’ll have an army of people ready to support you when you need it — because you’ve gotten to know them, engaged them, involved them and worked to build the relationship.

Business Partnerships

Effective nonprofits are great at leveraging business partnerships to make a bigger impact with their work. We’ve already gone into detail about how to secure corporate sponsorships and business partners:

Securing Corporate Partnerships for Your Nonprofit

5. They meet their base where they are.

Effective nonprofits do this in several ways:

  • They make sure they are physically where their people are. Meaning, they are out in their community.
    • For instance, if you’re running a diaper bank, but you’re several bus rides away from the community you serve and where the need for your services are the greatest, you’re not going to be as effective as you could be if you were closer to the people who need your help. Meeting people where they are could be a matter of picking a location closer to the community you serve, or coming up with a mobile or diaper delivery option to ensure people can take advantage of what you offer without causing them undue hardship because of your location.
  • They understand, then seek to be understood. This means that before proposing solutions, they seek to truly understand what the community they serve needs and faces in terms of barriers. They know that in order to help effectively, they must understand:
    • What drives the community they want to serve to act
    • What’s important to them
    • What prevents them from acting
  • They meet them where they are in terms of knowledge
    • They avoid the use of jargon and “inside baseball” talk. They speak to everyone in universal language that everyone can understand.
    • They proactively tweak their messaging so it’s accessible for everyone — even people who are not familiar with your cause

6. They collaborate and build coalitions.

Coalition-building is something that sounds more complicated than it actually is. Building a coalition requires a few steps:

  • Finding like-minded nonprofits and community groups
  • Meeting to discuss partnering to further your shared cause
  • Brainstorming ideas
  • Creating a “win-win” situation for all involved
  • Setting goals
  • Getting to work on those goals

Effective nonprofits build coalitions for the same reason they create business partnerships: They understand that they can do more together than they can on their own. And by working with other nonprofits and groups with similar goals, you can make a much bigger impact and reach more people.

7. They practice self-care.

This habit is a big one, but it isn’t talked about as much. But effective nonprofits know that people cannot do their best work when they aren’t taking care of themselves.

Caring for Yourself

It’s easy to get sucked into working nonstop for your cause. Because it’s not just a job, it’s a passion. But working too hard without taking time to care for yourself can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and ultimately keep you from being as effective as you can in your work.

So, effective nonprofit leaders do the following:

  • They commit to a healthy work/life balance.
  • They use their vacation days — because the work is important, but so is your life.
  • They ask for help from others when they’re getting overwhelmed. This can mean developing a support network online or in-person.
  • They don’t go it alone — they ask for help, they delegate responsibilities, and reach out for help with problems they encounter.
  • They build their support network, whether it’s closed Facebook groups for other nonprofit professionals, personal relationships or meetups with other people in similar lines of work.

Caring for Staff & Volunteers

Effective nonprofit leaders know they in addition to caring for themselves, they need to make sure their staff and volunteers have the space and ability to take care of themselves. And this is because burned-out, unhappy, overworked staff and volunteers who don’t feel supportive will eventually leave. Turnover means losing talented people and having to start from zero training new people.

Here’s how effective nonprofit take care of their workers:

  • They check in regularly with staff and volunteers, not just about the work, but also just to see how they’re doing on the job and in life
  • They develop support systems within the nonprofit, which can be as simple as cross-training employees so everyone can take their vacation days and sick days without worrying about their job being done
  • They encourage a healthy work/life balance and don’t expect unplanned overtime, give them regular schedules, and don’t expect them to be on-call when they’re off the clock
  • They make employees aware of resources for them
    • Employee assistance programs
    • Hotlines for employees in distress
    • Information about compassion fatigue

More Information about the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Nonprofits

Check out our webinar, share it with your staff, colleagues and board!

Want to learn more?

Request a demo and learn more about Mightycause.

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