Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie Crutchfield & Heather McLeod Grant

Published by: Jossey-Bass, 2007
Pages: 313 + xvii pp
Price: $29.95
Reviewed by Lana Atanazevich

Forces for Good provides a thoughtful yet highly accessible analysis of the practices that a dozen effective and influential nonprofit organizations apply to solve some of the world’s gravest social problems, from hunger to climate change to housing and education.

Leslie R. Crutchfield’s and Heather McLeod Grant’s book is important both because of the scale of the nonprofit sector in the American economy—the country’s 1.5 million nonprofits account for $1 trillion in annual revenues, making it the third-largest “industry” in the United States—and the value of concise, research-based analysis that can help leaders, donors, supporters and observers of the nonprofit world effect greater social change. In particular, beyond practical “how-to” advice, authors Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant offer a new way of thinking about nonprofits: “High-impact nonprofits don’t just build organizations—they build movements,” they argue, leveraging the power of business, government, the public and other nonprofits to become formidable forces for good.

High-impact nonprofits don’t just build organizations— they build movements.

Crutchfield and Grant seek to analyze nonprofit success using a dual lens: idealism and substantial experience in the social sector on one side and the pragmatism and rigor associated with MBA training on the other. (Ms. Crutchfield is a managing director at Ashoka, a nonprofit organization that supports public innovators from around the world; and Ms. Grant is a senior adviser to Stanford University’s Center for Social Innovation.)

To identify high-impact organizations to profile in the book, the authors surveyed nearly 2,800 nonprofit leaders, conducted interviews with 60 experts from various fields of the social sector and then studied the twelve organizations that emerged for over a year, identifying patterns and field-testing hypotheses to distill the six practices and make them explicit.

The dozen organizations that made the cut are as varied in their size and issue area as they are in their growth trajectory and approach to problem-solving. The group includes: America’s Second Harvest; the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; City Year; the Environmental Defense Fund; Exploratorium; Habitat for Humanity International; The Heritage Foundation; the National Council of La Raza; Self-Help; Share Our Strength; Teach for America; and YouthBuild USA. What these organizations have in common, say Crutchfield and Grant, is an unwavering focus on outcomes and results and the drive to do what it takes to get there.

The authors point out that great nonprofits go beyond program replication and buildingorganizational capacity —the subject of nonprofit research in the past two decades—to deliver programs more efficiently. Nor do they prescribe merely translating proven management techniques derived from business to the social sector, since better management practices can create only incremental, not breakthrough, social change—”even the best businesses cannot tell us how to change the world, because that is not their primary purpose.”

Crutchfield and Grant go beyond traditional measures of nonprofit effectiveness, choosing to examine great nonprofits themselves to understand what enables them to make the next leap—to be the catalytic agents of change working outside as much as within their four walls to change entire systems. Collectively, these nonprofits have not only fulfilled specific organizational objectives, but, more importantly, have also influenced important legislation on issues ranging from housing to welfare reform, pressured corporations to adopt sustainable business practices and mobilized the public to act on such issues as hunger, education reform and the environment.

To achieve this level of impact, the authors argue that organizations must learn how to:

  • Advocate and serve: work with government and advocate for policy change, in addition to providing services;
  • Make markets work: harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner;
  • Inspire evangelists: create meaningful experiences for individual supporters and convert them into evangelists for the cause;
  • Nurture nonprofit networks: treat other groups as partners, not as competitors for scarce resources;
  • Master the art of adaptation: adapt to the changing environment and be as innovative and nimble as you are strategic; and
  • Share the leadership: empower others to lead.

Taken as a whole, the recommendations in Forces for Good could prove overwhelming, particularly for small nonprofits. Conversely, an argument could be made that these practices seem obvious and most nonprofits beyond a certain size exhibit them to some degree.

Admittedly, the claim made in the book is ambitious. Attempting to reduce the complex dynamics that constitute nonprofit success—let alone that of a movement —to a checklist of principles is bound to raise questions, not the least of which is the rigor of research through which the six practices were derived (the authors, for example, had no control group and no baseline measurement for truly distinguishing top organizations from the rest). Can it be proven that the chosen nonprofits have been successful because of the six practices—and not because, at least to a certain point, of a visionary leader with an idea “whose time has come?” Is the list exhaustive? Are the practices both necessary and sufficient? Academics, nonprofit researchers and leadership experts will long be at work answering these and related questions.

It is important to remember, however, that above all, this book is about the power of leverage—small organizations achieving extraordinary results by working through others. The authors give examples of how by finding “levers long enough” among the nonprofit networks, businesses and the public, organizations are able to exert influence far beyond their capacity. Thus, for instance, YouthBuild USA, with an annual budget of $18 million, helped secure nearly a billion dollars in federal housing funds; and Teach for America, launched by a Princeton undergraduate in a borrowed office, made teaching in public schools “cool” and created a vanguard for education reform among America’s future leaders.

The new breed of philanthropists who see giving as a social investment want to support entrepreneurial approaches that lead to systemic change and tangible outcomes in relatively short amounts of time. Indeed, any leader would do well to understand how to create leverage to catalyze movements that can transcend the cross-sector boundaries and the capacity of any one organization.

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