6 Great Small Nonprofits and What Makes Them Succeed

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Gov. Neil Abercrombie listens to Terry Lock, the state’s early
childhood coordinator.
Photo: Courtesy of Good Beginnings Alliance


Good Beginnings Alliance

At some point, it’s not enough to feed the hungry; you have to deal with poverty. Or you tire of measuring the decline in fish populations and start to think about banning gill nets or regulating nonpoint source pollution. In other words, programs only go so far; to really change things, nonprofits have to affect policy. They must be advocates.

Good Beginnings Alliance has long advocated for early-childhood education and health. “Actually, our organization was set up originally in the Legislature to work with the governor’s cabinet leaders,” says Liz Chun, who has served as executive director since GBA was founded in 1997. “We were an intermediary created to help coordinate the early-childhood education system.”

Although GBA has occasionally managed programs, that has never been its primary mission. Its real purpose is to educate the public, legislators and government officials about the importance of helping children from birth to fifth grade. Its real purpose is to track the policies and trends that affect young children. Its real purpose is to drum up support in the community for programs that improve their health and prepare them for an education. Its real purpose is to advocate for young kids.  

A recent example of this kind of advocacy has been the Be My Voice Hawaii campaign, which GBA launched in response to dramatic cuts in the state budget – cuts it feels disproportionately affect young children. Be My Voice Hawaii is intended to give the public a way to let legislators know what they think about children’s issues. “It’s a way they can say they believe that more resources should go to children,” Chun says. “We’re selling an investment in early childhood. We want more people to understand that if they want this to be a state that prioritizes children, they have to let legislators know it.”

That’s not a mission teachers or child services organizations can do effectively. But all nonprofits should be thinking about advocacy. “So, if you’re a nonprofit that deals with helping homeless families,” Chun says, “you need to be aware of the policy issues that impact that. For some, it’s probably connecting with those whose main focus is advocacy. They should be part of an organization that will do that for them.”


Local cowboy Masa Kawamoto and storyteller and falsetto singer
Kindy Sproat were honored at a North Kohala Community
Resource Center event. Above: A plaque recognizes the
restoration of the Kohala Ditch, which was badly damaged in the
2006 Hawaii Island earthquake. The center partnered with
government agencies, foundations and private donors to
raise money for the repairs.
Photos: Courtesy of North Kohala Community Resource Center

Community-based organization

North Kohala Community Resource Center

Closely aligned with the ideas of collaboration and assets-based nonprofit management are community-based organizations like the North Kohala Community Resource Center, whose mission is “to increase the number of successful community-improvement projects by providing local support and education as well as bridges to funding.” In other words, community members think up projects and programs that will help the community, and NKCRC serves as a fiscal sponsor, helping them develop the resources and funding to execute those plans.

At its heart, community-based development is more of a network than a pyramid. Solutions don’t trickle down from experts or authorities, they well up from countless sources in the community. Bob Agres, executive director of the Hawaii Association of Community Based Economic Development, compares these networks to mycelium: Projects mushroom up where they’re needed, but the real structure is hidden from view. So it is with NKCRC: Its two-person staff belies a vast system of community organization. “At the current count,” says founder and treasurer Bob Martin, “we have 68 or 69 projects that we’re supporting.” Over the past 10 years, the organization has funneled more than $7.5 million in nonprofit support through the community.

In many ways, selecting NKCRC as a best nonprofit is cheating. As an agency whose mission is to serve as a fiscal sponsor and general enabler of other organizations, NKCRC can be thought of as a stand-in for the dozens of projects they support and the people behind them. But that’s exactly the point. The success of NKCRC is the quintessential bottom-up, self-organizing body that is community-based development.

According to Agres, an excellent example of this kind of collaborative, community-based project is a new program called Community Harvest. This project encourages the community to collect all the regional produce that would normally fall and rot, and gather once a month to can, preserve and smoke it. The volunteers consume some themselves, but most they give to the food bank. “It’s like going back to plantation days,” Agres says, when the community prepared and ate food together.

Although NKCRC is technically the fiscal sponsor of Community Harvest, it’s really the brainchild of an energetic young businesswoman named Angela Dean, who runs the Kohala Intergenerational Center, and David Fuertes of Ke Hana Noeau. Earlier this year, the program became one of five winners of the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Island Innovation Grant, securing $82,000 in funding.

Fostering these community projects makes NKCRC popular. “We only have about 1,800 households in North Kohala,” says Martin. “About 300 or 400 of them give to us every year. Probably even more donate to some of our projects. That’s because the community can see the benefit of having a resource center.” 


How We Picked Them

When we set out to identify great nonprofits in Hawaii, we knew we should not rank their missions. All the agencies on this list serve critical roles in the community, but so do dozens of other nonprofits. It’s pointless to decide if feeding the poor is more important than teaching children, or whether caring for the sick supercedes saving our environment. All are worthy causes.

Instead, we looked at whether each agency achieves its mission. To do this, we identified a few key characteristics of successful nonprofits and then selected agencies that exemplify those characteristics. Most of the nonprofits on this list exhibit many or all of these six characteristics.

Second, this list clearly isn’t comprehensive or definitive. For example, we’ve excluded large nonprofits, which, almost by definition, are highly successful. They have more resources – financial, institutional and staffing – that make them more likely to succeed. Instead, we focused on small nonprofits that have a big impact compared to their size. To identify them, we’ve relied on the recommendations of their nonprofit peers – especially the funders, consultants and intermediate organizations that work with many agencies.

Finally, we don’t pretend that these are the only characteristics of successful nonprofits. If you ask the experts or search the literature, you’ll find a host of lists that purport to describe the “best practices” for nonprofit management. We considered many of those lists before settling on a few initial stipulations:

1. All great nonprofits have responsible and active boards of directors who exercise prudent oversight and governance.

2. The best agencies are always ethical and transparent in their operations.

3. Well-run nonprofits are managed in just as businesslike a fashion – in accounting, human resources and planning – as their for-profit counterparts.

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