Nonprofit Traction

Gaining Traction in Nonprofit Organizations

nonprofitIn Traction-Get a Grip on Your Business, Gino Wickman provides insights for success in entrepreneurial for-profit businesses; but with some modification, many of his concepts need to be considered by nonprofits. Whether the organization is cause-based, membership-based or a foundation, these concepts can be applied to insure success.

Let’s consider the six key areas described in Traction and how they apply to nonprofit organizations. They are: vision, people, data, issues, process and traction.


A vision is a picture of the future your organization is trying to create. It generally entails doing something that benefits a target group or cause, association members with special needs, the environment or animals. Most organizations have a Vision and Mission. Both are components of the strategic plan.

In developing a strong vision, consider the following questions:

  1. What are your core values?
  2. What is your future target?
  3. What are the areas of focus that must be developed to be successful?
  4. What are your goals?

The core values are those guiding principles for your organization. They include items such as service to others, honesty, teamwork, and your relationship with members. They define your culture and are the basis for making decisions on a daily basis. These values need to be present in any prospective employee, volunteer, or board members brought into the organization. Conversely, if it is determined that a person does not share these values, it is time to have them depart the organization.

Your vision is also based upon what you want to be at some future date. That may be 10 years, 5 years, or 3 years in the future. The leadership must determine this time frame based on their best estimate of what it will take to build the effort. In today’s ever changing world, shorter is better.

Areas of focus can also be defined as goal categories. These are the areas in which you need to develop goals. Categories might include membership, fund raising, development of volunteers, board engagement, and programs.

Goals need to be carefully developed and prioritized in each goal category. They need to be SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistically high and time based). Once goals are established, your vision needs to be narrowed down into 90 day windows. This is the difference between long-term and short term goals. These 90 day goals are referred to as Quarterly Rocks. These should be few in number, given specific responsibility, and have a schedule for completion. They need to be reviewed and reported upon by the leadership team on a regular basis as often as weekly.


Having “the right people in the right seats” – e.g. the right trained staff in the right jobs, and the right people on the right teams- is critical in any organization. Just because a nonprofit is working for a “good cause” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to pay attention to being well-run.

In addition to staff, nonprofits rely internally on 2 critical groups of people: (1) nonprofitvolunteers-who essentially are unpaid staff, and (2) a volunteer board of directors.

Volunteers are vital for most nonprofits, and indeed most nonprofits start by being run by volunteers since there is no money for paid staff. A typical development cycle for a small organizations might be:

  • Someone has a great idea and, with the help of a few others, gets it started. Everyone helps out; they believe in the cause.
  • As more people volunteer there is a need for better organization: differentiation of volunteer roles; a core group becomes the decision-making group, acting like a board.
  • Work expands to the degree that one or more full-time staff are needed and hired, and they work closely with volunteers.
  • Over time more staff are added and a staff structure is developed, and the organizational and governance structure becomes formalized.
  • Clarity of roles between staff, volunteers and board is vital. Lack of role clarification is a major cause of problems in non-profits. Areas that require particular attention are: relationship between staff and volunteers; role of the board and of individual board members; relationship between chief executive/executive director and the board.
  • Watch for lack of alignment or lack of communication between departments or other units of the organization.  Use of an accountability matrix can help. Likewise, use of individual assessments tools such as DISC, Values Index, Attributes Index, and StrengthFinder2.0 can be of value to identify individuals’ to build on or areas of improvement.  The assessments provide useful information but most valuable is talking through what this means for the individual’s or team’s development.


  • Most nonprofits do not track the right or most important information. If they track or report on anything it is usually “activity” – how many training events were held, how many brochures were sent out, or how much money was spent on certain activities or services, and so forth.  This may be useful data in operational terms but does not show if the organization is successful at doing what it is supposed to do.  An exception is finances. A budget versus actual report not only shows financial viability but reflects whether the organization is appropriately allocating resources to its priorities.
  • Most important is to identify what the organization’s aims are (see mission/vision), what results are sought and how those results are to be measured.  Measurement is infinitely important.
  • The right data is especially important for the board to monitor if the organization is delivering on its mission, and for donors and funding agencies to be shown what has been accomplished as a result of their contributions or grants. These people are (or should be) less interested in “how” something was done than in what was achieved.


All organizations face challenges and obstacles. These may be internal (poor internal communication, lack of teamwork, inadequate attention to stakeholders, etc.) or external (competition for funding, external regulations, lack of awareness by the general public of the organization and its aims, etc.).  It’s critical to identify the key obstacles or issues, discuss them in an appropriate group and prioritize them, determine who is charged with developing options to solve or overcome the issues (including what human, financial or materials resources are needed), stay focused on implementation and solutions, review progress and adjust implementation of solutions as needed, and review outcomes for lessons learned.

Volunteers are part of that process. They also need to be held accountable for identifying issues, and solutions (this may be done jointly with staff), implementation and review. The closer to the “action” that this process can take place the better.


nonprofitIn much of the nonprofit world, we are guided by passion and emotion. The work is heart based not head based. A major shortcoming in many non-profits is a lack of clarity about processes. Documentation is key. Too often in non-profits the processes are vague, are only known by some long-serving staff member or are not kept up to date.

Certain process (i.e. HR accounting, membership etc.) are standard though need to be tailored to the particular organization.  Other process may be totally unique to that organization.  Those still interact with other processes and the points of interaction should be made very clear in order to avoid confusion and a waste of effort.


Non-profits are prone to facing resistance to change, or griping about conditions without addressing the issues, and these prevent the organization from growing and developing – in other words, preventing traction.  Excuses such as “we tried that before and it didn’t work” or “the volunteers won’t like it” or “no one tells us what’s going on” indicate an organizational environment that is not optimal.

Staff and volunteers have an enormous amount of ownership and commitment to the mission of the organization. This generates a lot of positive energy but may also lead to idealizing what the work environment should be and espousing a view that everyone should be involved in making every decision. This leads to organizational paralysis. Creating an organizational culture that emphasizes openness and communication, focuses on “the big stuff” (top priorities) and encourages innovation will lead to traction

Putting It All Together

Having spent much of our time in the commercial business world, we are constantly amazed at the level of leadership seen and required in caused-based and membership-based organizations. We live in a world of shifting sands. What motivates our donors, members, and volunteers is ever changing. The needs of those we serve is in flux. We cannot assume that the reality we believe is the reality of our current environment.

Always be ready to make the changes necessary to adapt. Revise your vision. Assess and develop your people.  Address your issues. Document your processes. Track your data.   Develop your “rock” plans and implement them. Own your passion and develop Traction.


This article was joint authored by Linda Stinson (RLS Focused Solutions) Sandy Mitchell (Idimensions) and Bob Stinson (RLS Focused Solutions)