The Journey to Nonprofit Excellence

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Editor’s Note: Many state associations of nonprofits develop leading or “best practices” for nonprofits that reflect the specific legal obligations in their state. In the following piece, one state association shares a mini-case study that reveals some of the background and philosophy of how it shares this resource with the nonprofit community it serves. And, while most nonprofits won’t be creating such a program from scratch, the challenges experienced by the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM), can prove instructive for nonprofits that wish to adopt similar systems of best practices.

Rosey Higgs, Director of Programs, Nonprofit Association of the MidlandsThe Nonprofit Association of the Midlands (NAM) launched our Guidelines and Principles for Nonprofit Excellence (G&P) in 2011. Through the generosity of a local funder, NAM makes the G&P toolkit available free of charge for all 501(c)(3) organizations in Nebraska and southwestern Iowa.

When we launched the G&P, many people welcomed it with open arms, expressing sentiments such as: “finally, here’s a tool that can be used as a roadmap for achieving legal compliance, demonstrating accountability, and keeping up with best practices!” This response wasn’t universal, however. Some initially resisted, seeing this as just another tedious ‘box to check’ on their never-ending list of to-dos. Our biggest task since the inception of the G&P has been to prove its worth.

We’ve been fortunate to win people over as they have seen the G&P in action. It has been embraced by our philanthropic community, with five local foundations including questions in their grant applications asking whether the applicant uses the Guidelines and Principles, and two foundations requiring it as a condition for continued funding. Nonprofit consultants across Nebraska and Iowa encourage use of the G&P to prepare for strategic planning, and two leadership development programs for nonprofit executives use the G&P as a part of their curriculum.

There were many steps along this journey and many remain. Among the themes and action that led to our current success:

  • We’re here to help. We have staff dedicated to helping our members work through the toolkit. We host monthly free workshops where nonprofits can get hands-on help with their assessments. We make ourselves available for one-on-one help when needed. This approach has proven especially important for small nonprofits with limited resources.
  • We acknowledge it’s not exciting, even though it is important. Our task is not to make sure nonprofits are doing good work – we already know they’re doing that. Our goal with the G&P is to support the “business end” of operations, the part that often isn’t sexy or fun, but needs to be done properly so they can get back to the exciting work of achieving their missions.
  • Templates, templates, templates. Need a whistleblower policy? Here’s ours. Need a volunteer handbook? Here’s one generously shared (with permission!) from another nonprofit. Giving nonprofits a model policy or procedure in an editable format may be the most valuable resource we provide.
  • We help prioritize. After a nonprofit completes an online self-assessment, the automated system generates a custom report that provides a prioritized checklist of items needing attention. This report helps our users answer the inevitable ‘now what?’ question and provides a clear path toward compliance.
  • The Wiki : NAM has a small staff covering large geographical spaces, so to provide nonprofits access to information when they need it and not be dependent on having a NAM staff member present, we make resources available electronically via a central hub. Our online Wiki has extended considerably our capacity to help nonprofits anywhere, anytime. Each topic addressed in the Guidelines and Principles links to resources on our Wiki, where people can find templates, additional information, and links to other resources.
  • We are not the nonprofit police. An organization’s progress on its G&P is kept confidential. We never share any information regarding a nonprofit’s assessment with anyone but representatives from that nonprofit. We do not share any nonprofit’s G&P reports with funders – including those that require grantees to use the program; we simply confirm whether the nonprofit is using the toolkit. However, we do share aggregate data from all users with various entities, including funders, and to guide our training efforts so we can focus on reoccurring needs that get identified. G&P users are made aware of this practice.
  • We keep up. We keep abreast of changes in policy at the local, state, and federal level and update our tool accordingly. It’s worthless if it’s not current.
  • We listen and adapt. We ask for feedback about our members’ experiences using the tool, and boy do we get it! And we’re glad that we do, because we’ve learned about items for future improvements. Indeed, we’re in the process of launching G&P 2.0., which will feature a streamlined experience and, thanks to language shared with us by the Montana Nonprofit Association’s Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence, better promote equity and inclusivity. (By the way, we also extend our deep gratitude to other state associations of nonprofits – Colorado Nonprofit Association, Michigan Nonprofit Association, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, and Montana Nonprofit Association – for their input and generosity in the constant evolution and enhancement of this resource, which we adapted with permission from Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence © 2010 Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and also adapted with permission of the Michigan Nonprofit Association ©2008. All rights reserved by their respective copyright holders.)

The last two steps are important for our credibility with those who use our Guidelines and Principles for Nonprofit Excellence. We don’t pretend to know it all, and we recognize that we need to stay informed by constantly reviewing relevant changes in law, practices, and feedback. Promoting accountability, ethics, and best practices – just like running an accountable, ethical nonprofits via best practices – is a constant journey. Never fully reached, but always being sought.

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