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The Risk of Small Thinking

By Nell Edgington

Nonprofit leaders sometimes suffer from small, or short-term, thinking. It makes sense that they would. The sector’s funding, structures and standards are set up to encourage, if not reward, small, risk-averse thinking. But small thinking can actually be a bigger risk to an organization and ultimately to the solution it exists to achieve. To really reach solutions, at the scale that we increasingly need, nonprofit leaders must break free from short-term thinking and lead by example into the world of big, long-term, game-changing approaches.

Here are few ways that small thinking actually jeopardizes a nonprofit and the solution it is working towards:

  • Not creating a growth plan when there is obvious need for the solution. Someone started a nonprofit for a reason–a need existed. Either the nonprofit is working to significantly get rid of that need, or they are just getting by. I understand that we are in the midst of a recession, but if you don’t have a big vision and big, bold plans to get there, who will be inspired to invest in a big way?

  • Not pushing your donors to give much, much more. Connected to creating bigger plans is stretching your donors further. Nonprofits at times seem afraid to upgrade donors. They are happy if a donor simply returns for another year. But with a little research into the capacity of a donor, and a compelling plan for what you would do with an increased investment, the money is sure to follow.

  • Not adequately investing in an earned income stream with a demonstrated market. A nonprofit may have done the research and made an attempt at selling a new product or service, but they are afraid of taking the plunge and significantly going after that market. The end result is that a competitor finds the market the nonprofit identified and the opportunity is gone.

  • Not hiring, and paying for, the best and brightest staff available. Sometimes nonprofit organizations pay salaries well below the going rate, even within the nonprofit sector. It is no surprise, then, that the staff they do recruit lack the experience, vision or skills to take the organization to the next level. If you want big results, you need to recruit people who have the ability to plan and execute in a big way.

  • Not investing in next generation tools for doing your work. So many nonprofit organizations exist on a shoe string, but the advent of free-ware and social media has leveled the playing field immensely. Now you can have a state of the art sales team for very little upfront cost. You can spread your message, garner support, find advocates, track them and customize your communication with them all for the investment of some staff time. Climb on board this new train, experiment and see where it leads.

These are challenging times, to be sure. But the worst thing to do is to lock yourself in a box of your own making. Challenge your donors, your board, your staff, your volunteers to do more, to be more, to achieve more. Paint the big picture, instead of the small one, and see where it leads.

Photo Credit: ilovememphis

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.

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