Good to Great in the Social Sectors

Posted by on Feb 22, 2013 in ComLead, Managing Not-For-Profit Organizations, Organizational Leadership

Good to Great in the Social Sectors

One of the unique approaches of the ComLead Grad Program is that it emphasizes finding many ways to approach the same problem. When last year’s blog author took the Non-Profit Management seminar class, she shared how the Five Faces of Genius model helps leaders in the social sector.

In the same class this semester, we’re looking at another extremely influential model in the context of non-profit work. Jim Collins’ iconic Good to Great has a place on every corporate manager’s bookshelf. His lesser-known monograph, Good to Great in the Social Sectors, explores the path good non-profit organizations have taken to achieve greatness.

Collins compared non-profits with average performance to their high-achieving counterparts. He found that the key variable that differentiates the good from the truly great is discipline. Great service organizations – those that model superior performance, distinctive impact and lasting endurance – have the discipline to make and stick to a single focus.

Greatness is not a function of circumstances. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a mater of conscious choice, and discipline.

The Culture of Discipline

Great non-profits commit themselves to disciplined people, disciplined thought and disciplined action. Their leaders are singularly focused on one ultimate goal – whether that means ending homelessness, improving education or preserving the environment – and are willing to cut the fat to achieve this goal.

They have the discipline to hire the most passionate people, and let go of those highly-skilled employees that aren’t truly on board. Great non-profits are unafraid to ask the hard questions about their organization and their impact. Here, all employees share a culture of discipline that reduces the need for micromanagement.

Stuck in Good

In some non-profits, discipline is a four-letter word. In these places, lack of discipline is engrained the organization’s habits, becoming the pervading culture of the organization. Many organizations lack disciplined thought, and will pursue any promising programming opportunity, even if it doesn’t further their mission.

Funds are spent as needs and opportunities arise, instead of budgeting income for the greatest impact. These organizations will use volunteers, board members, and even staff carelessly, without outlining goals or expectations.  These bad habits keep these often good enough organizations from achieving greatness.

The Path to Great

Those of us in the non-profit class can share stories of frustration and failure in the undisciplined organization. What’s harder is actually becoming an agent of change in these places. The first step – and it’s a tricky one – is facing the brutal facts.

Any non-profit has the potential for greatness. The Red Cross, American Cancer Society, Habitat for Humanity and World Wildlife Fund are proof. But inevitably, these organizations took the time in their early years to stop, assess their situations and make the difficult decisions to cultivate discipline.

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