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


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)


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