6 Great Small Nonprofits and What Makes Them Succeed

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A mother reads to her daughter on Hawaii Literacy’s Bookmobile
at a Waianae Coast site.
Photo: Courtesy of Hawaii Literacy

Assets-based approach

Hawaii Literacy

All too often, one of the unintended consequences of charity is that the people a nonprofit serves become dependent on those services rather than empowered by them. An assets-based approach to community service tries to avoid this pitfall by emphasizing clients’ strengths instead of their weaknesses. This strategy, while increasingly popular on the mainland, is still uncommon in Hawaii. One local agency that stresses an assets-based approach is Hawaii Literacy, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring people of all ages can read and write.

Suzanne Skjold, executive director, uses the organization’s youth program as an example. Hawaii Literacy lets the children choose projects and how to implement them. Because the organization doesn’t emphasize their weaknesses, their strengths shine through. Older kids help younger ones. Poor kids work side by side with those who aren’t. (Hawaii Literacy doesn’t restrict its services to the poor.) All take ownership in the program.

Holly Henderson of the Weinberg Fellows, a program that trains nonprofit leaders, says this approach yields more than just literacy. “It’s doing leadership development by involving the kids in planning and executing the program. It’s also unobtrusively building relationships and changing attitudes, because both have and have-not kids are working together, leveling the playing field. And it’s helping to build the next generation of volunteers.” All that simply from recognizing the strengths inherent in children and encouraging them to act.

It’s harder than it sounds. “The first thing we do,” says Skjold, “is determine whether they can read and write.” In other words, Hawaii Literacy, like most social services, begins by highlighting a weakness instead of a strength. The difficulties mount from there. “Part of the problem is the way we get our funding,” she says. “Often, we have to tell potential funders something like, ‘Please help this poor, illiterate child.’ We seldom get to focus on that child’s strengths. We don’t get to say, ‘This is a kid who really has potential and great intelligence and could one day grow up to be a doctor.’” These are problems shared by most nonprofits that want to take an assets-based approach.

But Skjold believes that striving toward an assets-based approach makes Hawaii Literacy a better organization and its programs more relevant. “All our programs are very driven by feedback that we get back from our clients,” Skjold says. “We ask them, ‘What do you want this program to be? What are we not doing that you think we should?’ ” In other words, by recognizing the clients’ strengths rather than weaknesses, Hawaii Literacy helps break the cycle of dependency. “They truly have the ability to help with the direction of the services that we provide.”


The Learning Disabilities Association teamed with the UH Center
on Disability Studies to bring LeDerick Horne (center) to speak at
a Honolulu conference. The nationally known motivational
speaker is an advocate for people with disabilities.
Photo: Courtesy of Learning Disabilities Association of Hawaii

Enthusiasm for collaboration

Learning Disabilities Association of Hawaii

Liz Chun, longtime executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance (another of our six best nonprofits), says the trick to nonprofit success is to find your niche. Of course, that’s another way of saying, stick to your mission. The flip side, especially for small nonprofits, is that you have to acknowledge what you’re not good at – even when those deficiencies directly affect your programs. Frequently, the answer to this conundrum is to collaborate and develop partnerships – with other nonprofits, government agencies or individuals. One agency that has embraced this is the Learning Disabilities Association of Hawaii, a nonprofit that enhances the education, work and life opportunities of disabled youth.

LDAH executive director Michael Moore, who recently attended the Weinberg Fellows training program for nonprofit leaders, talks about being receptive to collaboration. “I was surrounded by 13 other people who, to one degree or another, this organization was associated with,” Moore says. Some, he saw, were from organizations LDAH had worked with in the past. Others, like the director from Project Vision Hawaii, he recognized as obvious partner candidates for LDAH’s ambitious school readiness project. Even before finishing the Weinberg program, Moore began reaching out to his peers. What followed was a flurry of emails as organizations explored opportunities to partner. “I think that really touched Holly,” Moore says, “because that’s kind of what they want: to see people talk to each other, to figure out how to get together and provide a service that reaches more people.”

The best example of LDAH’s collaboration is its School Readiness Program, a comprehensive effort to provide Hawaii preschoolers with development, socioemotional, vision and hearing screenings. The program is an impressive exercise in partnership and planning. Some of the participating agencies include the Center on Disability Studies, Hale Naau Pono, Waianae Neighborhood Place, PATCH, Keiki o ka Aina, InPeace, the Community Children’s Council Office and several others. Little LDAH’s ambitious program also received significant funding from the Aloha United Way, an endorsement not without controversy in the nonprofit sector.

But Moore believes the School Readiness Program succeeds precisely because it is ambitious. “I think the reason we won is because, while everybody else was writing and frantic to get their application in in a relatively short period of time and wrote proposals for $10,000, $20,000, or $70,000, I spent all my time making calls and identifying my partners before putting pen to paper.”

The final budget for the School Readiness Program was more than $500,000, most of which gets passed on to LDAH’s partners.


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