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Our Theory of Practice

We build on strengths

At 501 Commons, everything we do is based on a "theory of practice" framework drawn from research on nonprofit capacity building and our experience working with thousands of organizations over many years. We focus on Five Elements of a Healthy Nonprofit and Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. But first, our guiding principle of building on strengths sets our course.

Guiding Principle: Build on Strengths

We build on the strengths of individual leaders and organizations.

  • We respect each nonprofit's unique culture and history.
  • We honor the expertise in your organization, as well as the expertise of our staff, contractors, and Executive Service Corps members.
  • We customize our services to fit your needs.
  • We share best practices and collaborate with other service providers in order to better serve nonprofits.

We value - and practice - collaboration. In a sector that's always low on resources, collaboration can lead us to solving problems in new, more cost-effective ways. We believe that dialogue between nonprofits, philanthropy, government, and business is essential to tackling the serious problems that affect our people and our planet.

Five Elements of a Healthy Nonprofit

Our services are designed with a model of a healthy nonprofit in mind. We focus on these five elements:

  1. Strong governance and oversight
  2. Good management and a healthy organizational culture
  3. The resources to carry out our mission and accountable management of funding
  4. Communications and relationships with people who give us money, use what we create, help us meet our mission, and carry our message
  5. Efficient and effective programs, services, and administrative systems

Our programs and approaches are designed to help nonprofits excel in each of these areas. Through our Assess section, you can learn about this model and the Self-Assessment we have developed that allows you to evaluate your organization's performance on standards for each of these elements.

Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

Even if an organization has the Five Elements in place, it may not be making a significant impact on the world. A nonprofit can have internal capacity in place and still lack vibrancy and creativity, like a dancer that can go through the motions but lacks artistry. That's where the six practices come in.

In Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, Leslie R. Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant saw great social sector organizations as having six practices in common. Here is our take on those practices, and how we implement them in our work.

  1. Advocate and serve. Providing effective programs is important, but we also urge you to look beyond the boundaries of your organization. You may need to work with others, including the people you serve, to truly grasp the underlying issues you are trying to address. This means keeping root causes and systemic issues in mind when creating programs and working on immediate problems.
  2. Make markets work. Not all business school ideas transfer over to nonprofits, but we encourage you to have the mindset that you are running a business. We ask: What is the problem you are trying to solve and why can your nonprofit provide the solution to that problem? We also help you develop earned income and build business and strategic plans that are grounded in what the community needs.
  3. Inspire evangelists. Great nonprofits build communities and movements, not just organizations. We support evangelist leaders and help organizations lay a foundation for their advocacy work. We can provide a power boost to help you ignite change beyond your organization.
  4. Nurture nonprofit networks. The most important signal that a nonprofit will have a big impact on the world is a willingness to weave a network of partners and allies. Great nonprofits share what they have with others in order to reach their goals. Because we work with so many organizations of all sizes and types, we can often help you grow your network and partners.
  5. Master the art of adaptation. Our coaching and consulting can help you learn to read the landscape and listen to new voices. These are traits that make a nonprofit resilient and adaptable in internal and external environments. An organization committed to effectiveness, not to stability, is suited up for change. These organizations are less likely to be pulled off course by external events.
  6. Share leadership. Effective leaders have many styles; not all have star power. But to be effective - and to avoid burnout - you need to share leadership within your organization and within your networks. Our governance model also focuses on shared leadership. We help you build a board that is passionate about your mission and their governance responsibilities, but able to support an effective leader.

501 Commons works to demonstrate these characteristics in our own organization - to "walk the talk." We can be most effective when working with organizations that are committed to developing these practices. Learn more about how we approach our work by reading the 501 Commons Team Charter.