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5 Characteristics of Successful Nonprofits

Embracing these qualities can help your nonprofit reach its goals.

There are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S.,1 and every last one of them began with a mission to support a community or solve a problem. Unfortunately, good intentions aren’t enough by themselves. To truly succeed, a nonprofit needs plenty of funding and strong leadership. But that’s not the only thing separating the nonprofits that are meeting their goals from those that are falling short. If you’re building a nonprofit, there are a number of positive traits you can adopt to help your organization succeed. Here are five of the characteristics exhibited by the best nonprofits:

5 Characteristics of Successful Nonprofits

They Focus Their Passion

Feeding the hungry. Helping the homeless. Supporting our schools. Assisting veterans. Every nonprofit has a passion, and that passion is important because it gives nonprofits the motivation they need. But passion tends to be unfocused. For instance, what does feeding the hungry actually mean? No one group can make sure every hungry person in the world receives enough food every day. That’s why the most successful nonprofits focus their passion on a specific goal. They run a foodbank in a specific neighborhood, or they organize canned food drives at local schools, or they host dinners for families in need at a local community center or church. The point is, they harness their passion and direct it toward a specific, reasonable mission.

They Take Time to Strategize

Focusing your passion is just the beginning. Once you know your mission, you need a strategic plan that details the individual steps your group will take to reach its goals. How important is a strategic plan? Research shows that one of the biggest differences between top-performing nonprofits and all the rest is that the top-performers have a written, strategic plan.2, And that makes sense. If you’re going to host dinners for families in need, you’re much more likely to be successful if you plan out what it will take to reach your goals. What venue can you secure? Where will the food come from? How do you spread the word? How do you make sure you have enough food for everyone? How do you make sure you have enough volunteers and funds? How do you make sure you can keep hosting these meals? Answering these kinds of questions can significantly improve your ability to reach your goals.

They Know When to Say No

Nonprofits aren’t known for having large budgets or huge staffs. A few do, but most are working with limited resources. And having limited resources means there’s a limited amount you can accomplish. To avoid wasting time, money, and energy, the best nonprofits know they have to carefully choose their projects. Saying yes to every idea—or every request for aid—can deplete your resources and prevent you from focusing on matters that need you most. Learning how to say no can be an invaluable skill.

They Manage Expectations

Your long-term ability to attract donors, volunteers, and partners depends a lot on whether or not you prove yourself successful. But “success” is often a matter of measurement. If you state your goal is to feed 2 dozen families and you feed 3 dozen, that’s a success. If you state your goal is to feed 200 families and you feed 3 dozen, you’ve fallen short. That’s why it’s critical that you set proper expectations by establishing reasonable goals. In general, it’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.

They Avoid Burnout

Passion is an amazing motivator, but it’s not an unlimited fuel source. At some point in the course of running your nonprofit, you’re going to get tired and possibly even discouraged. So is everyone else who’s involved. Trying to fight through it will likely make things worse and could lead to burnout. And once you’re burned out, you’ll struggle to get going again. Successful nonprofits recognize the threat of burnout and make sure leadership and staff members take time off when needed. A vacation can be reinvigorating. Even just an office party can lift spirits. When you take care of yourself, you can better take care of others.

What Else Can You Do to Build a Successful Nonprofit?

One of the best ways to acquire the knowhow you need to build and/or run a successful nonprofit is to earn a graduate certificate in nonprofit management. Through a certificate program, you can take courses that explore foundational concepts and principles related to nonprofit budget, finance, resource development, and strategic planning. These courses are at the level you would find in a graduate degree program and, thanks to online learning, you can complete them from home on a schedule that allows you to continue working full time.

Choosing an online certificate program is an excellent decision if you want to improve your nonprofit management skills while continuing to run your nonprofit. There’s a lot that goes into building a successful nonprofit. The right online certification program can help you reach your goals.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management program. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.



Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,