The Core Elements of a Successful Nonprofit

It didn’t take me long in my first nonprofit to discover that I felt extremely fragmented trying to do my job.  How in the world was I going to handle all the essential aspects of nonprofit management when I was the only staff person?  I sat at my desk, one day, my head in my hands, at a loss to know what to tackle first.

But as I began to really think about all the essential components of my job, I realized I could narrow them down to six basic elements.  I knew if ignored any one of them it could create problems to the point where the nonprofit might eventually cease to be effective, or even cease to exist.  Now I just needed to figure out how to incorporate volunteers into each element to get things done.

And that started my journey toward development of the core elements philosophy of nonprofit management.  Over the next 30 years, serving in five different nonprofits and consulting with hundreds of nonprofits, the experiences just reinforced what I had discovered that day.  An understanding of all of the six core elements is critical (see The Hour Series of Guides for Nonprofit Management, and the book, Core Elements of a Successful Nonprofit)

An executive director (ED) can easily be fired because they were so wrapped up in program implementation that they ignored the other five elements.  As anyone knows who has been in the nonprofit business for very long, running a successful nonprofit takes more than a spirit of altruism.

Weak administrative functions, for example, can be present in any organization, regardless of the size.  Multi-million dollar budgets do not guarantee solid infrastructure.  In fact, sometimes the larger the organizations the weaker are the internal controls.  The ED of any nonprofit must be sure that all of the proper internal controls are in place, regardless of how urgent the program needs.

The core elements or infrastructure on which a nonprofit builds its programs will be the ultimate basis for success.  Six core elements are easily identifiable as the basis for building a solid nonprofit infrastructure, increasing the possibility the nonprofit will succeed.  A simple but effective way to assess the health of a nonprofit organization is to evaluate how well the core elements are being implemented in every aspect of the organization.  Based on the core elements chart below, on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being “outstanding” and 1 being “poor”) rate your nonprofit in these areas:

Core Element                                                             Rating

Marketing                                                                          ______

Resource Development (fundraising)                         ______

Programs                                                                           ______

Community Involvement                                               ______

Volunteer Development                                                 ______

Administration                                                                ______

Click to open the graphic
Click to open the graphic

Once the ED has completed the rating of the organization, the rest of the staff and the board of directors can also do this simple assessment as part of the strategic planning, or they could do a more detailed assessment (see The One-Hour Organizational Assessment).

Depending on the current status of the organization, its learning culture, and how long the ED has been on staff, the initial assessment may need to be very simple, like the rating assessment above. Regardless of the tools used, assessments need to be a constant part of everything done by an ED of a nonprofit.