Tips for Big Nonprofit Growth

So you wanna get big. That makes sense—the bigger your organization, the greater your impact. What nonprofit doesn’t want that?

But nonprofit growth is hard. According to recent data from the National Center for Charitable Statistics, just 5 percent of U.S. nonprofits have expenses of $10 million or more, while 66.4 percent have expenses of less than $500,000.

The vast majority of nonprofits may be small, but even the big guys had to start somewhere. And it’s no accident they got so big. Growth is attainable—especially if you know where to start (and you’re willing to get your hands dirty). Now, obviously, it’s a complex problem with challenges that differ from organization to organization. We won’t try to solve that problem here. But we can point you in the right direction.

Here are five ideas for growing your nonprofit:

1. Learn to Do More With Less

For the most part, even the biggest nonprofits operate on tight budgets. What really separates smaller, newer nonprofits from their larger, established contemporaries is manpower. If you want to grow, you’ve got to get the most out of what staff you have. “Be selfish with staff time,” said Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer for, a New York nonprofit that helps public school teachers crowdfund for supplies and services they need. “With a lean staff, you have to make sure you’re maximizing time to generate the most progress toward your mission. We constantly look for ways to scale the work we do.”

Smile Train, the New York nonprofit that works to treat cleft lip and palate in developing countries, uses a “teach a man to fish” model—starting with a small base of employees on the ground and training local surgeons to carry on the work—in its programs. Susannah Schaefer, Smile Train CEO, said the organization applies the same model to its own growth. “On the operation side, it’s very similar,” she said. “It’s a similar approach of very small numbers of staff doing as much as they can to get the message out.”

That may mean instilling a sort of all-hands-on-deck staff mentality early on, challenging your entire team to spread the word and support the mission however they can. This approach might be tough in the short term, but it can have long-term benefits—especially in busting silos before they even have a chance to start.

2. Focus On Your Mission

Still, there’s a fine line between doing more with less and spreading yourself (and your staff) too thin. It may take time to find that balance, but making sure any new task or initiative is in service of your mission is a good way to stay centered—remember, growth is a marathon (or, more accurately, an Ironman Triathlon), not a sprint.

“Especially when we were a young organization, we had a number of offers to expand our platform or take on projects that weren’t closely aligned with our mission,” said Bisbee. “Today, we still get calls every week or so to bring to other countries. But, as our CEO says, we ‘keep to our knitting.’ We know we’re really good at connecting U.S. teachers and students with the resources they need most, but we can still do more and do it better, so we stay focused on our mission.”

3. Build Trust

There are a ton of nonprofits, many good, some bad. And its the bad ones that make headlines. As such, nonprofits must constantly prove themselves trustworthy. That can be a real challenge for an upstart organization, but it all starts with transparency. “Obviously, it takes money to raise money, and for those who understand how nonprofits work, that makes total sense,” said Schaefer. “However, you have to be transparent. You have to be smart about how you manage your programs, your operations—it’s just critical to any type of growth.”

Bisbee agreed. “The next generation of philanthropists expects more transparency and wants to see results,” she said. “Fewer donors these days get excited by writing a check, mailing it in and hoping for the best. They want to have a connection to your mission.”

4. Show Impact

This goes hand in hand with building trust, and Bisbee touched on it above. A study by Root Cause found that 75 percent of donors want information about a nonprofit’s impact before donating, compared to 68 percent who look for information on overhead costs and 63 percent who want to know the social issue a nonprofit addresses. Donors want to know they’re making a difference. has embraced that idea, making it a core component of its operating model. And it’s paid off. “Donors know that when they give $5 to help a teacher grow her classroom library, for example, that’s exactly where the money is going,” said Bisbee. “The donor can literally see the titles of the books the teacher requested, they know when we’ve shipped the books out to the classroom, and they receive thank-you notes and photos of the students reading those exact books. We’ve stayed true to this model since day one because we know people who come to want to see their impact, and we can offer transparency and accountability they often can’t find anywhere else.”

5. Stick to the Fundamentals

The basics might be boring, but they work. That doesn’t mean you can’t dabble in fancy new social media platforms, experiment with payment methods (looking at you, Bitcoin), court Millennials or embrace the latest viral phenomenon. It just means you shouldn’t prioritize those things over fundraising fundamentals.

“Listen, there will always be a new tool to explore, or a new viral campaign that looks massively appealing from where you’re sitting,” said Pamela Grow, fundraising consultant, author of “Simple Development Systems” and publisher of weekly email newsletter “The Grow Report.” “But it’s when you have a deep understanding—when you truly grasp what donor-focused relationship fundraising truly is—that’s when you’ll know if that new tool is worth your effort.”

One of those boring fundamentals critical for growth? Direct mail acquisition. Grow recommended building and maintaining a strong strategy here, but stressed the need to be smart about it. “By smart, I mean, one, understand your market, and two, compensate for what is beyond your expertise,” she said. “If you’re serious about it, hire a consultant
and make sure you have a damn good copywriter. And—this is big—ensure you’ve got strong systems in place to grow the relationship after that first gift. Otherwise, it’s not likely to flourish beyond a one-time thing.”


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