January 15, 2016

Executive Summary: Nonprofit Management Tools and Trends Report 2015

By: Chris Lindquist, Amy Markham

Good management has never been more important for nonprofits in their quest to help those in need. The Great Recession increased populations at risk and drove funding austerity nationwide, placing a premium on using various management "tools" to achieve the greatest social impact. Yet, no one could say for sure which tools are being used or how effective they are.

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This report aims to fill that knowledge gap. It creates a "consumer report" for nonprofit leaders seeking to apply one or more of 25 popular management tools to the challenges at hand. (Results are based on 481 surveys completed nonprofits leaders.) These tools can help organizations live up to their missions—and meet funders' expectations for results. We modeled our research after a similar business survey run by Bain & Company since 1993.

The survey gauges current and anticipated use of the 25 tools, user satisfaction, and how effort expended on implementation relates to favorable tool ratings. In addition, the survey queries nonprofit leaders on 21 trends to see how the most popular tools connect with the current thinking about what it takes to manage effectively.

Highlights include:

  • Tool use is widespread and nonprofits anticipate using more in 2015.
  • Relationship-oriented tools are popular throughout the sector, with partnerships and collaboration rising to the top in use and satisfaction.
  • Respondents find the tools they use largely to be effective. Increasing effort to apply them usually—but not always—leads to significant increases in satisfaction.

At the same time, some surprising findings emerged that highlight gaps between trends and practice. Among them:

  • Tools and trends at times diverge: Misalignment occurs between opinions on trends and related tool usage in two prominent cases.
    1. First, nonprofit leaders see a need to increase performance measurement, but few believe funders will increase support for evaluations.
    2. Also, many nonprofits consider talent management a key issue, but 60 percent have not taken advantage of tools that could help assess and develop employees.
  • Leaders' attitudes toward specific approaches to growing their organizations' impact vary dramatically by size of organization (e.g., organizations of all sizes are betting on partnerships and collaboration, but larger ones are more likely to explore technology and for-profit models).

Bridgespan intends to make this report a recurring exercise that should serve to stimulate questions, test practices, spark experiments, and ultimately help managers to get better results.

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