What does excellence really mean in the nonprofit sector?

By Lauren Jeong, program associate, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

In a sector driven by social good and a focus on people and communities rather than profits, what does excellence really mean? Is excellence measured by number of people served? Overhead costs? Donations collected? Number of meals distributed, tickets sold or people educated? Is it measured by a community’s reduction in homeless or increase in literacy?

Lauren Jeong, program associate, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

Lauren Jeong, program associate, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta

When the Community Foundation reviews a grant application or meets a new nonprofit in the region, we consider evidence of impact, innovation, solid business practices, stable infrastructure and strong leadership as benchmarks of excellence.


Building effective, impactful programs requires a deep understanding of your community, audience and field, based on research that includes stakeholder feedback. Research helps the organization incorporate feedback into programs and operations and respond to changes in the environment and audience needs.

Exemplary nonprofits are nimble enough to respond quickly to immediate needs but also maintain a strong strategic plan to grow their mission over time. Strong organizations have thoughtful metrics for programs and operations, and regularly monitor progress. They can clearly articulate what success means, whether it is increasing the number of people served or expanding programs to achieve defined outcomes for constituents.


Innovation doesn’t necessarily mean constantly spinning out new programs. Outstanding nonprofits use stakeholder feedback and respond proactively to challenges, whether the response is launching a new program or tweaking an existing function to better support market changes. With limited staff and resources it can be a challenge to quickly pivot and overcome potential obstacles facing constituents. Excellent nonprofits consider new solutions to challenges and build creative thought partnerships that lead to greater responsiveness. Ultimately, impactful nonprofits maintain a culture of continuous improvement.

Solid Business Practices

Durable nonprofits have written policies and consistent practices for developing and reviewing their annual budget, assessing staff, implementing the strategic plan and securing signed memoranda of agreement, confidentiality agreements and conflict of interest statements. They recognize how their written policies, from their by-laws to board manuals to employee handbooks, contribute to their success and help keep them on track and in compliance of established rules and standards.

Stable Infrastructure

Strong organizations have a solid foundation and are financially sustainable. They have a plan for building and maintaining operating reserves that allow flexibility for needed program investments and rainy days. They have a clear grasp of finances and maintain development plans. Excellent organizations also invest appropriately to improve program efficiencies and security.

Strong Leadership

Culture is key to organizational success. Effective, resolute leadership creates a culture of continuous improvement that fosters innovation and drives impact. These organizations think about how diversity and cultural competence is reflected in their leadership and are mindful of barriers preventing people from participating in their programs. Resilient organizations invest in the development of staff and volunteers, are attentive to burnout and understand what makes their organization a great place to work.

Does this sound like your nonprofit? Consider applying for the Community Foundation’s Managing for Excellence Award. Since 1984, the award has recognized nonprofits that use superior management practices and innovative thinking to drive impact within the communities they serve. Each year two organizations – one with a budget under $2 million and one above – receive a robust award package that includes a $75,000 grant and professional consulting services. The deadline to apply is January 18, 2017. Learn more here.

Interested in nonprofit best practices? You can find more on what the Community Foundation values in strong nonprofits on our website.

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