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What impactful nonprofits do differently

In a nutshell, learning. I admit I see the world through this bias since I have been immersed in the world of learning for the last 30 years but give me a moment to explain.

I was reading the HBR article, "What the Most Productive Companies Do Differently," and I realized that everything they suggested came to a learning solution that would help nonprofits increase their impact. The authors describe four traits that the most productive companies practice, and I will show you how nonprofits can incorporate each with a learning solution.

1. Capture Value from Digitization

HBR has found that organizations that digitize are much more productive. However, McKinsey found that most organizations only realize 25-30% of the digitization value. What does this mean? In short, most of us recognize the need for digitization, but we don't properly implement it, so we do not experience the full benefits of digitization.

The most common mistakes I have observed in nonprofits is either inadequate or improper digitization.

Inadequate digitization might look like outdated tools or tools that are not appropriate for the task. We may think that what we have is 'good enough' when we don't update tools or invest in cheaper options, but by not having the right digital tools, we limit what we can do, and we cost our humans time and frustration.

Improper use of digitation looks like having the right tools but not using them to their full benefit. This is one of the most preventable, but common, issues in all organizations. Consider the following examples:

  • your team emails or puts documents on a USB drive to swap back and forth for edits instead of working simultaneously on a cloud document that tracks all changes.

  • team members going back and forth on their calendars to find a meeting time instead of letting the calendar automatically find a common time and available place

  • team members manually numbering, formatting, and spacing large documents instead of using the automatic leveling features to allow indexing and outline views which also automatically update with changes.

These are some of the most common and simplest losses with improper digitization, but most organizations can see even greater gains by learning more advanced features of tools like macros, formulas and API.

Not digitizing appropriately is a huge cost to our organizations. We lose countless manhours and the potential to do amazing things.

2. Invest in Intangibles

HBR found that productive organizations invest 2.6 times more in intangibles, such as the capabilities of their workforce. There are other intangibles as well, but for most of us, the biggest investment we make is in the humans who run our organization. As we increase the skills of our humans, our organizations operate more effectively. Our organizations are only as good as the humans that make them. Investing in those humans makes our organization's possible future limitless.

3. Build a Future-Ready Workforce

I believe the future-ready workforce is agile and always learning. The technologies and systems are always changing, so we need humans who can adapt to those changes and are willing to learn new ways to do things to adapt to the future. Consider the changes in fundraising methods and how now so much has to do with the social media messaging and branding. Now we need humans who are savvy with marketing and social media and learning new ways to promote our mission and connect with donors and clients. To position our organizations for a future we don't know, we need our humans to be always learning and trying new ideas.

4. Adopt a Sytems Approach

For organizations to be truly successful, they need to connect the dots and look at entire systems. Strategic planning done well will consider your systems and how they support your goals. It also means you connect with others inside and outside your normal sphere. These networks allow learning and provide supports that will help you impact your mission. We must intentionally build systems to help our people connect what they are doing with our mission and to learn skills that maximize our impact on the mission.

How nonprofits can use learning to implement all of these practices

Learn the tech

To make sure you have the right digital tools and are using them to their full benefit, find someone in your organization who is tech savvy, and give them time to learn the tools and train others to use them. There are countless YouTube videos and courses to learn every tool out there, and by investing this upfront time in learning and training your humans in the tools, you will save hundreds of manhours and be able to do things you never imagined!

Identify and target skills your team needs to learn

Invest in your humans by building the skills you want them to be able to do. Recognize that you may not know everything you want them to know, so also allow them to choose topics they want to explore, and they will be more engaged and bring new skills to benefit your mission.

Create an impactful learning ecosystem

Instead of sending people to one-and-done trainings, develop a system where your humans are constantly learning. This means allowing weekly (or ideally daily) time for learning, ways to share learning, methods to make learning available to your humans in their moment of need, and ways to acknowledge learning.

Action Steps

Have your team members pick one skill they want learn and develop a plan to learn it. Allow them work time to build that skill, and then have each share what they learned with the rest of the team.

Want more?

Visit Lindow Learning to learn how to engage and retain your humans and impact your mission more.


“What the Most Productive Companies Do Differently.” Harvard Business Review, 16 Feb. 2023, Accessed 28 Feb. 2023.


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