Say you want to understand a nonprofit quickly—maybe you’re interested in working for one, joining a board or making a donation. What do you need to know before you invest your time, talent or money in an organization? Here are 10 questions that will take your nonprofit knowledge to the next level:
1. Impact: How does the organization define its impact on the world? What is it doing to create that impact?
2. Data: How does the organization use data to evaluate that impact and improve its work? What kind of internal and external research is used to shape day-to-day activities and long-term goals?
3. Vision: Where does the organization want to be in five, 10 or even 20 years? Is there a plan in place to realize that vision?
4. Strategy: What are the organization’s current priorities? What is the biggest pain point? What is the greatest opportunity?
5. Business Model: How cost-effective is the organization? What does it spend for each unit of impact, whether measured in people served, trees planted or animals rescued? And, just as importantly, how is the organization covering those costs? (Hint: Look for a diversified revenue stream and a realistic fundraising plan.)
6. People: How is the organization structured? How many paid staff members work there versus volunteers? Many nonprofits, particularly smaller ones, are largely volunteer-led or have board members who function like staff.
7. Culture: How would you describe the culture of the organization? How do the staff and board members work together to accomplish their objectives? Does the organization’s internal culture mesh with its external profile?
8. Context: What other nonprofit groups are targeting the same issue, population or geography? How does the organization add something new and necessary to that mix and how does it collaborate with peer nonprofits, corporations, government agencies or other partners?
9. History: How long has the organization been around? How has it evolved over that time? Is the organization treading water, or is it drawing on experience to continually refine its services, reshape its goals and deepen its impact?
10. Governance: What kind of board structure does the organization have? Are board members paid? How deeply engaged are they in supporting fundraising or programming? What kinds of skills, expertise and perspectives do they bring to the organization?
Of course, you don’t have to limit yourself to these 10 questions. Keep digging deeper until you have a good sense of where the organization has been, where it is headed and how it’s going to get there. Once you know that, you’ll have a better idea of what the organization needs—and how you can advance its cause.
Editor’s note: For additional assistance analyzing nonprofits, access the “Donor Toolkits” and other resources available through Penn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy.