News and analysis
October 05, 2014

New Project Will Identify and Share Best Nonprofit Management Tactics

For nonprofit organizations to realize their potential for social impact, they need more than a good program and ambitious leaders to expand it. They need good managers who adopt approaches that make the most of opportunities, anticipate threats, develop talent, and produce strong results.

Fortunately, many management tools and tactics exist to help leaders make good, informed decisions to these ends.

The challenge is to understand what tool can help deal with a given problem, how it’s best applied, and, most critical of all, which ones have most often led to positive results.

Twenty years ago, the global management consultancy Bain & Company created a survey titled "Management Tools & Trends." It led to what has become a biannual consumer report offering guidance to corporate leaders on the best approaches for their organizations.

This year, the nonprofit Bridgespan Group, which was incubated at Bain & Company, is collaborating with The Chronicle of Philanthropy to start an analog for the social sector.

This new project will ask a wide range of nonprofit leaders to provide insight on the use and effectiveness of 25 top tools, and to voice their opinions on the importance of 21 major trends affecting the sector.

Bridgespan interviewed more than two dozen nonprofit leaders and other experts to identify the tools that they believed were among the most important currently available to nonprofits.

The tools focus on five major areas, such as clarifying goals (including doing scenario and contingency planning and devising a "theory of change") and managing success (including seeking feedback from beneficiaries and evaluating programs).

To help leaders gain deeper insight about the tools, we are offering an online reference guide that describes each one, its methods, and its application, along with a bibliography of articles and cases that illuminate the use of that tool. Our hope is that this guide will allow nonprofit leaders to learn more about the approaches, even before seeing the survey results in January. Readers will get an early look at what we’ve learned in The Chronicle’s first issue of 2015.

But management advice doesn’t matter unless it has context, and that is why we also are asking questions about the most important trends in the nonprofit world. Among the issues related to those trends: whether nonprofits are betting on technology innovation to increase their impact or whether they might participate in pay-for-success initiatives or social-impact bonds in the next three years.

We anticipate that the survey will reveal both points of pain and instruments of hope, much as the Bain & Company survey has for corporate managers. For example, in the early 2000s, after sales of the much-hyped customer-relationship management systems had dropped and many believed that interest in the tool was waning, Bain discovered a dramatic uptick of interest in such systems among the business leaders who responded to its survey. That insight helped focus attention both on the specific perils of CRM tools and on how companies could avoid pitfalls and use CRM to serve the needs of their businesses most effectively.

The survey report will not only help nonprofit leaders who want to understand what their peers are doing and what tools might be most valuable to their organizations, but it should also aid philanthropists who want to assess the impact of their current or potential donations, as reflected in the performance of charitable organizations.

The first "Nonprofit Management Tools & Trends Survey" will establish a baseline and provide a snapshot of which tools and approaches are being mostly widely used and by whom. However, the greatest value from the survey may become clear as it is re-administered over time—illuminating trends, showing how tools are working or falling short, and helping philanthropists and other nonprofit leaders understand their own impact on nonprofit management practice and performance.

If you are a leader of a nonprofit, we invite you to participate in the survey. And we look forward to sharing, in January, what we’ve learned about how managers are using the tools and driving trends.

Paul Carttar, a Bridgespan senior adviser and former director of the Obama administration’s Social Innovation Fund, directs the "Nonprofit Management Tools & Trends Survey" with Chris Lindquist, Bridgespan’s senior director of online knowledge.