6 Great Small Nonprofits and What Makes Them Succeed

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Photo: Courtesy of Hanahauoli School

Clear, viable mission

Hanahauoli School

The first rule of not-for-profits,” writes nonprofit consultant Peter Brinckerhoff, “is mission, mission, and more mission.” Mission, he points out, is a nonprofit organization’s legal reason for existence. It’s why the staff works long hours, often for a fraction of what they would earn in the for-profit sector. It’s what attracts volunteers and donors. This is why it’s so critical to have a well-defined mission that everyone in the organization knows and is passionate about.

“I would say the nonprofit organization that lives and breathes its mission better than any other that I’ve experienced is a little private school called Hanahauoli School,” says Terry George, COO of the Harold K. L. Castle Foundation. “I admit my bias. I’m a parent of two kids who go to school there, and the school is a grantee of the foundation, but their mission has really stood the test of time.”

The key to that longevity, George says, is that the school makes the mission the centerpiece of what it does, not an afterthought. “Their board starts every meeting by having someone read the mission aloud. They really review it. Every employee there knows what the mission is. And they live it.”

Hanahauoli School’s mission statement is a long, eloquent defense of the educational philosophy of John Dewey. It champions an experiential approach to education, one in which children learn by doing and develop at their own pace. That may seem abstract, but it’s reflected in everything the school does.

“I think our mission really does guide our decision-making,” says Bob Peters, Hanahauoli’s longtime head of school. He points to the school’s decision to use multi-age class structures, merging kindergarten and first grade, second grade with third grade, and fourth with fifth. “We recognized that children don’t develop equally across all areas at the same pace. Once we went to multi-age, it allowed us to give those youngsters who needed a little bit more time the opportunity to do that, and those younger kids who were ready for greater challenges to have that happen at the same time.”

Mission is also about what not to do. In the past, Hanahauoli has considered expanding or adding a middle school. “After some serious study,” Peters says, “the board really felt that we were looking at young children. That was the focus of our philosophy, and remaining an elementary school was much more consistent with and well-aligned with our mission.”


HUGS’ Respite program provides joy for many children.
Photo: Courtesy of Hugs

Bias toward marketing

HUGS (Help, understanding & Group support)

As Peter Brinckerhoff points out, nonprofits need to “understand that everything they do is marketing, and see that every act, from service selection to how the phone is answered, is a marketing opportunity to pursue their mission.” One organization that embraces this holistic approach to marketing is HUGS, a small nonprofit that provides support services to the families of critically ill children (171 families at last count). The result is a level of sophistication that makes the organization seem much larger than it is.

Case in point: When Nordstrom’s department store decided to use its grand opening at Ala Moana Center in 2008 as a fundraiser for local nonprofits, they selected just three organizations from dozens of applications. Two slots went to large, well-known organizations – Bishop Museum and the Boys & Girls Club – that had the resources to make elaborate proposals. The third went to tiny HUGS. What was the secret? Marketing top to bottom.

HUGS executive director Donna Witsell says the first step to this comprehensive approach to marketing is to hire well. “Part of it is you start with people that are passionate about what you do. They really, really have a passionate belief in the mission of the organization. All of us know the well being of the families that we serve depends on what we do. If you put that at the top, everything else falls into place quite neatly – most days.” 

That’s critical for a nonprofit, because everybody in the organization is part of the marketing team, whether they know it or not. With HUGS, it starts at the top. “Our board development committee has been going out and targeting certain sectors,” Witsell says. “They’ve been incredibly successful in cultivating new members, in bringing in people to nominate who have brought such gifts to the organization.” That’s marketing.

Witsell believes the same level of professionalism colors everything HUGS does. “Every part of our constituency should be able to be a mouthpiece for the organization. That’s why, when we’re out in public, our presentations are as professional as they can be. You’re an ambassador, a reflection of your organization.”

Witsell says HUGS has set some basic responsibilities for itself and its employees that have to be met. “We make sure when we show up at an event like a golf tournament that our presentation is professional and that it illustrates our appreciation for them. We have smiling faces, and everyone is in their HUGS shirts thanking people and greeting people.” She says it’s also important to have some of the organization’s beneficiaries there. “When your beneficiaries are able to say to your sponsors, ‘Thanks for what your organization does for me,’ that’s powerful.”


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