Red Letters

Red Letters

How to Make the Social Sector Great

Since 2008 the economy has put a serious beat down on many governments, businesses, and non-profit (social sector) organizations in the United States and abroad. Leave it to the primal forces of greed and corruption to give a good trimming to the number of non-profit organizations left standing. Many of the rest have much less resources to rely on than when the economy was booming.

Yet, many companies continue to thrive in this doomsday climate. Take Apple or Google for example. They and companies such as Western Digital and DirecTV have grown between 40-58 annual EPS. ( This is also true of organizations in the social sector. Many are thriving.


Why is this true? Is it happenstance? Not according to Jim Collins in his book, Good To Great And The Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great. There are reasons non-profits do well and those reasons are the same as what applies to business. “Mediocre companies rarely display the relentless culture of discipline—disciplined people who engage in disciplined thought and who take disciplined action—that we find in truly great companies. A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.” ( Collins, Jim (2011-09-27). Good To Great And The Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great (Kindle Locations 26-28). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition)


I’m certain there are many reasons non-profits fail. But what is worth focusing on is why some are succeeding in this economy and some are not. Collins believes there are keys to the success of organizations whether the are for profit or not for profit:

Issue 1: Defining “Great”—Calibrating Success without Business Metrics
Is your organization great? Are you delivering a great ‘product’ (ministry) on the field? Is it compelling and sustainable? If not, you will struggle to attract new donors and big donors. Effectiveness and impact are the keys. “In the social sectors, the critical question is not “How much money do we make per dollar of invested capital?” but “How effectively do we deliver on our mission and make a distinctive impact, relative to our resources?” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 88-89)


Issue 2: Level 5 Leadership—Getting Things Done within a Diffuse Power Structure
Leaders know how to delegate and share the power. If a CEO operates out of fear or insecurity, then they will maintain all of the power, stifling the company. People in the organization will get discouraged and frustrated. The other issue can be that the CEO doesn’t know how to make decisions and the environment stagnates.

Issue 3: First Who—Getting the Right People on the Bus, within Social Sector Constraints – One of the most critical elements to success. An insecure, fear-based leader won’t get talented people on the bus because they see it as a threat to their leadership. Whatever you do, overcome this deficit because this is true: “Greatness flows first and foremost from having the right people in the key seats.”


Issue 4: The Hedgehog Concept—Rethinking the Economic Engine without a Profit Motive – Are you clear about how you produce results and the ‘best long term results?’ Can you say ‘no’ to the myriads of requests of donors to do things that are not within your sweet spot? The key here is to be the best in the world at what you do and learn to say no to everything else.

Issue 5: Turning the Flywheel – Building Momentum by Building the Brand
Build on your successes and allow the momentum to make your organization great. Everything an organization does builds their brand. How they treat their donors, how quickly they respond to requests and errors, how their constituents feel about the impact the organization is making.


On a personal note, I’ve studied Collins principles for years and done my best to apply them. The results have been, even in this downward economical environment, double-digit growth for the last three years. If you lead a non-profit organization or are involved in one, the questions isn’t, “Can you succeed?” but, “Will you make the right choices that lead to success?”

“Every institution has its unique set of irrational and difficult constraints, yet some make a leap while others facing the same environmental challenges do not. This is perhaps the single most important point in all of Good to Great. Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” (Ibid, Kindle Locations 475-476)

Comments read comments(2)
post a comment
Wes Roberts

posted November 30, 2011 at 11:59 am



…thank you!!

…I, for one, can attest to the fact that you DO what you’ve written here. The congruence with which you live, speak, write is praiseworthy, as you “walk your talk” in every deeper and creative ways.

…again…thank you!!!

report abuse

Mark Stevenson

posted November 30, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Tom- this is right on the mark. I am serving two ministries right now and have been with both leadership teams. One is waiting for things to get back to “normal” like a lot of homeowners that expect their house will be worth what it was in 2006 any day now. The other has a relentless focus on innovation and being true to their core identity. Now they are both great Christian NFPs, but one wants to make impact in ways that are in-step with the enormous changes in their field… changes that are permanent. Strain and change reshapes and clarifies mission.

report abuse

Post a Comment

By submitting these comments, I agree to the terms of service, rules of conduct and privacy policy (the "agreements"). I understand and agree that any content I post is licensed to and may be used by in accordance with the agreements.

Previous Posts

More Blogs to Enjoy!!
Thank you for visiting Red Letters. This blog is no longer being updated. Please  enjoy the archives. Also, here are some other blogs you may also enjoy: Activist Faith Is It the End of the World ...

posted 9:51:43am May. 29, 2013 | read full post »

Download SCARED for free on Nov. 1 & 2!
The publisher of Scared is giving away free e-book downloads on November 1 & 2. Don't miss this great deal. Download Scared today! Download your free Scared e-book! A Note from the Author: Tom Davis Scared is a work of ...

posted 5:05:29am Nov. 01, 2012 | read full post »

Touching the Image of Jesus: Part 3
In the final chapter of Alexandra's story, she shares what happened when she boarded the plane for Swaziland with her teammates. This post is a little longer, but I'm pretty sure you won't be able to put it down. Thank you again, Alexandra, ...

posted 9:50:18am Sep. 13, 2012 | read full post »

Touching the Image of Jesus: Part 2
When we left Alexandra, she was wondering how she was going to raise $3,411 to travel across the world with a group of Christians she didn't know. She wasn't a Christian and had no church. But she did feel deeply compelled to get on this ...

posted 4:17:01pm Sep. 10, 2012 | read full post »

Touching the Image of Jesus: Part 1
[caption id="attachment_2722" align="alignright" width="300"] Alexandra, looking ready.[/caption] Sometimes there's a lot more going on than we can see with our physical eyes. At least, that appears true in the case of Alexandra ...

posted 11:01:13am Sep. 06, 2012 | read full post »


Report as Inappropriate

You are reporting this content because it violates the Terms of Service.

All reported content is logged for investigation.