What should a 2013 not-for-profit look like?

not-for-profit team

The good people behind OpenTech 2013 posed a great question as one of their potential sessions for the event happening on 18th May in London: What should a 2013 not-for-profit look like?

It caught my eye a few weeks ago and I’ve been pondering it ever since, not only because I’ve had experience in starting up and subsequently handing over a not-for-profit, but also because I’m generally surrounded by all sorts of new not-for-profits, both those that FutureGov (my employers) are behind and those who get in touch, ask for advice, I read about in the media or who other people connect me to on social media.

So what do I think a 2013 not-for-profit look like?


There are several organisations out there doing great work and I’ve looked to them for the inspiration behind this post. Not-for-profits like Watsi, Charity: water, Child’s i, Akvo, WWF and Concern are my ideals in 2013.

My thoughts are below in no particular order. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

(I’m not presuming I’ll be “right” about some or even all of them, but they’re a good starting point to encourage discussion…)


People should be at the centre of any organisation, but not-for-profits even more so. Any org that doesn’t treat their staff right, work with volunteers well, regularly inform their donors, or actively engage with outside supporters is behind the times. Great leaders understand people are their greatest asset. A not-for-profit in 2013 should say thank you often to the people that help them – and mean it.

Flexible, Lean, Agile

Society and technology are changing faster than they ever have been before. With that comes a need for not-for-profits to be adaptable to the circumstances and opportunities that they see in front of them. That, or they fail to adapt and fall behind. The Lean Startup is one popular methodology to follow, one which promises that you will “make better, faster business decisions” if you follow it. A similar but distinct model, Agile is more for software development but is increasingly is being applied in the business world.

Not afraid to fail

Following the Lean movement mentioned above, being able to be flexible means that you have to try new things or change course into uncertainty. Not-for-profits that embrace this approach will success because they aren’t afraid to fail. Yes, they’ll make mistakes along the way by trying new things, but they’ll be stronger and more durable in the end. The best way to minimize the fall-out of failure is simply to fail faster. Maximize the chance of success while minimizing the investment you’ve made. In 2013, it’s easier to do that than ever before.

Demonstrably achieves their aim

Mission-related results are the very reason that not-for-profits exist. But many not-for-profits set out with an admirable aim for their cause, but then don’t let people know how they are doing to actually achieve that aim, or what they have contributed towards that cause. It can be as basic as letting people know how much funds you have raised for a cause or a short success story or two. Effective charities have a strong focus on results; on the outcomes and impact resulting from their work.


Yes, small is beautiful. But if your not-for-profits work is so good then it should be repeatable, either by the same organisation on a bigger scale, or replicated by different organisations in other regions or areas. If it doesn’t scale, the not-for-profit can still be great, but it won’t create as great an impact. For example, GiveWell seeks to distinguish itself from other not-for-profits through its focus on scalability, which it calls “room for more funding“.


Being open with what you are trying to achieve and how you are performing when trying to achieve that aim is vital in today’s culture. Transparency builds trust, vital if you want the support you need to achieve your aim. People do not trust organisations that seem like they have something to hide. Make sure your organisation is transparent in its practises, the good and the bad. Intelligent Giving’s 2008 annual report is an example of exceptionally transparent and accessible communication that charities should follow – and that was 5 years ago.

Balanced administrative costs

People who choose to donate only to the charities with the lowest administrative costs aren’t necessarily using their donation as could as they could be, never mind what they think. It’s been proven that high-performing not-for-profits spend more on admin than the lower-performers. Not-for-profits need to stop talking about their administration costs and focus on telling donors where their money goes. Indeed, new research that came out just today found that good charities spend more on admin but it is not money wasted.

Commercially minded

For a not-for-profit to survive in the modern age, they need to be commercially minded. Gone are the days when organisations could rely on donations or trust funds to get by. Having a commercial arm or product as part of achieving their aim means that they will be more stable and have a longer lifespan through diversifying their funding. There are risks, but a 2013 not-for-profit will be ok with that.

Markets their cause

Charity: water is probably the best not-for-profit around at marketing their cause. Their videos, photos and social media marketing make a compelling case for people all around the world to donate to their cause. And their (open and transparent) figures show that people believe in their cause too.

Mobile optimized

Mobile phones are prevalent around the world. While not-for-profits don’t have to develop a fully fledged smart phone app, they could make sure that people can text them, phone them, or view their website on their mobile. A not-for-profit with a mobile presence can communicate with their supporters in a more cost-effective and direct way.

What do you think a not-for-profit should look like in 2013? Leave your comments below.

(Photo by levork on flickr)



  1. I don’t know if it was intentional, but you’ve selected charities from quite a narrow part of the sector. I’d be interested to know what charities that work within the UK you think meet your ideals?

    I’d add a few more…

    Collaborate don’t compete
    So you’ve produced a resource that helps your employees or volunteers? Share it with others, even if they are your “competitors”. Learn from them and share experiences and knowledge. Don’t ever treat them as your enemy.

    Don’t believe your own hype
    Getting a mention in the paper, or on telly, can be a big deal for a charity. But for everyone else, it’s another mention of another organisation doing something equally as worthy as the next charity they’ll hear about. Measure success on the work you do, not the coverage you create. What would a 37-year-old factory worker in Rotherham think about what you do?

    Live your values
    Recognise the power you have as an entity to do good; not just for your cause but for a wider society. Be green, empower minorities, source responsibly, encourage a sense of community, even if none of those are what your cause is.

    The end-goal doesn’t always justify the means
    Related to the above point, there is little value campaigning to end poverty among pensioners if you pay your cleaners the minimum you can get away with. The need to cure cancer doesn’t allow you to rely on unpaid interns to do work that you should be otherwise paying someone to undertake. Begging and borrowing is fine, stealing is not.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Olly. Fantastic thoughts.

    Not intentional at all, but see what you mean – lots of examples from a particular part of the wide spectrum of not-for-profits out there.

    Within the UK, I look at:

    – The British Hear Foundation (very human, community centred, open about their research/stats, commercially minded)

    – Age UK (recent merger was a great example of collaboration not competition, commercially minded with range of products aimed at those they help, delivered in a human-centric way)

    – MacMillan (Amazing community, mix great real-world events with digital outreach and support)

    What UK examples would you recommend?

    Collaboration not competition is a great idea. Yes, many organisations have the same aims but approach the problem from different angles, so are effectively in competition. But they’re trying to solve the same problem, so sharing is key!

    Love your other points too – healthy reminders for any organisations that have fallen into those traps.

  3. Andrew Phillips once phrased it like this in the Allen Lane lecture, a quote that hangs over my desk at work:
    “[…] the charity sector […] clearly still stands apart from the State and private enterprise, however closely and needfully it engages with both. It is still, despite commercialising threats, genuinely diverse – anarchic even; truly organic; intrinsically cooperative; wholly people centred; open hearted and generous spirited; trustful and widely trusted; often informal and largely unbureaucratic; inclusive and non-discriminatory (apart from its moral bias); mutual in method and communal in attitude; egalitarian in the profound sense of valuing all equally; collaborative rather than competitive; selfless rather than selfish; giving centred.”

    While we all who work in the sector know charities that do not live up to that ideal, as a sector I think this is still largely true.

    • That’s a fantastic quote, Norbert!

      Glad to see lots of Phillips’ sentiments are present in my post. I guess they’re classic traits that we all want to see in not-for-profits?

      Might have to get that quote printed for my desk too :)


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