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The First (and Next) Question Every Nonprofit Should Ask

By Nell Edgington

Nonprofit QuestionsAsking the right questions is absolutely essential to creating social change. I’ve written before (here and here) about the importance and kinds of questions nonprofits should be asking. I am a huge believer in smart, hard questions.

Which is why I loved Bill Shore’s recent post in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. He encourages nonprofits to ask one simple, yet profound question: “What Does Success Look Like?” Which is very similar to Mario Morino’s question, “To What End?“, encouraging nonprofits to determine the ultimate goal of their work.

We are increasingly (I hope) asking nonprofits to get more strategic about their work, so that instead of spinning wheels, we are actually solving social problems. So Bill’s is an incredibly critical question.

But it is only the starting point.

Once a nonprofit knows what they are ultimately trying to accomplish, there are three critical questions they must next ask. And these are:

What is our strategy for getting there?
Unfortunately it’s not as simple as Bill makes it seem (and he would probably agree). You can’t simply set an end goal, and yell “Go!” You need a strategy for getting there, because there are many ways to get from point A to point B. The trick is figuring out what the right strategy is given your core competencies and the external environment in which you work. Because you cannot get to point B by doing something you are no good at, or something someone else does better, or something that won’t solve the problem.

What is the most effective and sustainable model to get there?
This is a piece that is sorely lacking in most of the nonprofit sector. Once you have figured out what you want to accomplish, you must figure out how you can structure your resources (money, staff, volunteers, board, advocates, assets) in a way that puts them to their highest and best use and actually ends up accomplishing your end goal. That’s a business model, and it includes staffing, financing, marketing and so on. And few nonprofits have a smart, strategic, sustainable business model behind their work.

What people and networks do we need with us?
Nonprofits have to stop trying to convince anyone and everyone to join their cause. You must be strategic about analyzing your end goal and your strategy for getting there and then determining what people, organizations, networks you need in order to execute effectively. So instead of assembling a board of warm bodies, you want to think about exactly what kinds of people, what kinds of networks, what kinds of expertise you need to move forward. And beyond assembling the right board, you need to assemble the right advisors, partners, alliances, advocates, decision makers, followers. In order to reach your end goal, you must marshal a whole army of people with specific, key assets. But you won’t build that army without first figuring out what the army should look like.

These are not easy questions. And finding the right answers is hard, hard work. Often it is challenging enough to get a diverse group of people (board, staff, funders) to agree on a common end goal, let alone to agree on all the steps and structures necessary to get there. But the alternative is to simply continue to spin your wheels while our challenges grow.

So start asking some hard questions.

Photo credit: Oberazzi

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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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