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13 Questions Every Nonprofit Should Be Able to Answer

I’m an idealist. I always have been, and I hope I always will be. This idealism is what drew me to the nonprofit sector at an early age (instead of becoming a lawyer, which is what my mother would have much preferred).

You have to be something of an idealist to do this work. Somewhere inside each of us is a voice that says, “I know we can do better [providing equal access to education, meeting basic human needs, protecting natural resources] and I want to devote myself to helping.”

We do a great job in the nonprofit sector imagining a better future for society. But we do a “meh” job envisioning a better future for the organizations we create to make that future happen. At any nonprofit happy hour, you’ll find staffers one-upping each other with stories of organizational woe. Healthy nonprofits can be hard to find.

In his blog, public-sector leadership expert Bob Behn (a faculty member at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government) suggests there is an Anna Karenina principle at work in government agencies. This idea, drawn from the famous opening line of the great Russian novel, suggests that all happy nonprofits are alike, and that every dysfunctional nonprofit is unhappy in its own way.

At Ostara, we have the privilege and responsibility of looking inside nonprofit organizations, seeing what makes them tick, and seeing what gets in their way. In our experience, the nonprofit universe has its own version of the Anna Karenina phenomenon – every organization is unique, and so are their problems. But there’s one thing many struggling organizations have in common: leaders are so busy doing that they avoid the big and vital questions, and problems build.

This work is hard. But avoiding the big issues makes it much harder.

So how do you get your thinking up to that 30,000-foot level? There’s no right answer, but we’ve put together a list of 13 questions every nonprofit should be able to answer that can give you better insight into your organizational health.

If you can’t answer one of these questions, something unhealthy is going on. It may be time to let a problem employee go; invest in evaluation; set a new financial policy to build a cash reserve; write a new development plan; or surprise an exhausted team by unexpectedly canceling a day of work and taking them bowling. If nonprofit leaders are brave enough to ask and answer these questions, it can help jumpstart the process of building a healthier organization. If we can apply some of our idealism in-house, looking bravely at the state of affairs and getting help when we need it, we can move forward and create more perfect organizations.

13 Questions Every Nonprofit Should Be Able to Answer


Do the people in my organization have a shared definition of success?

Does our definition of success have external credibility?

Is there a system for measuring our impact against our stated goals? (i.e. what impact does our organization have?)

HUMAN CAPITAL              

Is our staff motivated and engaged?

Is there a person (or people) holding the organization back in a significant way?

Is there an efficient process for resolving major personnel issues?

Is our team having any fun?


Do our leaders have a solid understanding of the organization’s financial position?

Is there a written development plan for how to acquire funding?

Does our organization have a reserve, or at least a plan for building one?


Do people in the organization have a shared sense of purpose they can describe?

Is our purpose distinct and necessary in the nonprofit marketplace of ideas and services?

Does our purpose meet a current and on-going need?

Can you think of any others? Feel free to chime in with a comment!


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