The Application Guide To Helping You Show How Awesome Your Nonprofit Management Practices Really Are (Aka Tip Sheet)

Hi there!

In order to help ensure that you submit the best possible application you can, we have created this tip sheet to provide some guidance. Please note, these are just friendly tips to help guide the way you interpret and respond to the application questions. They are not the secret code or the answer to the Nonprofit Excellence Awards (we keep that in Fort Knox).

A few main points of what we recommend throughout your application are:

  1. Advocacy. How do you share your policy expertise and advocate for your mission with staff and board, your constituents, and key influencers?

Advocacy is a tool that every organization has and should use to forward their mission. We mean using a public platform to forward your key strategies and solutions. This question is not about lobbying (although lobbying could be a part of your answer).  We want to know how you see your responsibility to the communities you serve in the public realm. What tools do you use to address systemic issues - we know that not every organization has a policy staff person, but how do you lift up from your day-to-day and work in coalition with others to bring about lasting, systemic change? How do you translate your own organizational experience into advocacy, testimony and arguments for improvement or change? We want to see that you know you don’t operate in a vacuum, and that your organization has a lens on the larger role in can play in changing landscapes. Your organization might not be in legislative halls, or organizing rallies, but we want to see how you are leveraging what you are expert in, and what you can do, to build community and power in unique ways.  We see you small organization, who doesn’t have the time, staffing, to engage in what the textbook definitions of policy and advocacy provide - you can still answer this question well because although you may not think you are doing policy and advocacy - you ARE: any strategic partnership, collaboration you engage in to address the issues your organization’s constituents face is advocacy, the way you build community can be a part of this answer; as well as the way you share your expertise and uplift the experiences of your constituents.

  1. Communications. Are your internal and external communications strategic, effective and build your brand?

Many times, responses to this question focus on either internal or external communications strategies. We want to hear about both, so please be sure to address both aspects in your response.

As for external communications, please note that Facebook likes alone are not enough - if you can show how those likes than translate into real action, connection and support of your organization, then that’s great. Your external communications are important to communicate your success, identity and mission and we want to know how you do that, and how you know you are being heard. Do you regularly listen to your key stakeholders? How do you promote your brand? How do you develop campaigns and launch them - who participates in the process and how do you know you are being successful? How do you use communications data to inform, improve, and evolve your communications strategies?

We are curious about the internal communications culture as well - how are communications used to bring your people along, and build teams?  How does your communications team integrate with the other teams in your organization? We also want to know about how you actually communicate with each other, including your strategies of promoting internal engagement and for  resolving conflict, promoting healthy disagreement, and using different communications styles to ensure that your team is heard.

  1. Diversity, equity, and inclusion. How does your organization cultivate and foster a diverse, inclusive, and equitable workplace through its policies and practice?

This question is where a lot of organizations stumble, because they can’t claim excellence, or that they’ve achieved an impressive goal.  That’s okay, because diversity, equity and inclusion work is never done.  We want to see how are engaging in this important, brave work.  How do you cultivate diversity, equity, and inclusion in your organization? What are your values, and how do they show up in your programs and policies? Tell us how your board, staff, volunteers put into practice the policies you have, and how your organization embodies these definitions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. An EEO statement is good, but it is only the start. Tell us about policies and practices that move your organization beyond what’s legally required.

How do you intentionally foster the conditions for everyone to be invited to the dance (diversity), that they actually dance (inclusion), and that they also get to play their favorite music (equity)?

You might have a widely diverse representation of people on staff, and that is important, but you should also demonstrate how you are being inclusive as well. Where do those staff people sit on the organizational chart?  Are you evaluating your programs and your end users through a lens of equity? Have you had conversations about how to move forward with all work through a race equity lens? Who leads this work in the organization?

We want to see the work, the goals, and the progress. Do not stop with a policy. Do not stop with your diversity statistics. Yes, those matter, but we want more.

We know this is an area of growth for many organizations. There is a reason for that;  the impact of racism - interpersonal, structural, historical - is real, and dismantling structures of oppression take time. So we value your honesty and candor on where you are, where you’ve failed, and what you intend to do about those experiences.

Intent alone is not enough though. This work is ongoing and you have to demonstrate your work of converting aspirations into reality.

  1. Financial management. How does your organization think strategically about finances to support your mission and to integrate financial management with all organization priorities?

Yes, we definitely assess your organization’s financial health and outlook. But that doesn’t mean that if you have a lien or a bad year that you’re disqualified. We want to understand how you think strategically, such as how you manage through unexpected events (good and bad!), and how you coordinate your financial management with all the other aspects of your overall management strategy.

Talk to us about what your budget planning process is and how it embodies your organization's values. We understand that funders come and go, you may have a bad gala, but we want to see how you learned from it and how you made hard decisions.

It’s not because you might have a trillion dollar endowment and 5 years worth of cash in the bank that you will score well in this category. It’s your strategy about what you do with the money you have  and your plans for what happens if it all goes south.

  1. Fundraising. How have you integrated fund development into your organizational strategies, and what roles do board, staff, volunteers and constituents play in this work?

This is often a question where we get a lot about how much you fundraise and which fund development activities you’re involved in. That’s great, but we also want to know how your mission drives your fundraising. How do you build and catalyze a culture of philanthropy in your organization? How does your planning include sustainable revenue streams? Are your development plans effective and are they accountable to your donors? How does your fundraising team integrate and work with your programs team? How do you forecast and ensure that your resource development is strategic and positions your organization for future growth and continued sustainability? How do you engage your constituents, clients, program participants in your fundraising strategies?

  1. Governance. How does your organization’s leadership (board and executive) add value to your organization to help it perform better, engage in risk management, set priorities, and be more transparent?

We want to know how your organization’s leadership crafts the strategy and vision that your team can then act upon. We look to see how well you demonstrate that the board is engaged in governance and fundraising oversight, and how they are spokespersons for the the organization. If you are going to write about your board committee structure, we need to understand more than just that you have a structure; we need the communities’ mandates, purposes, and engagement with the organization.

With respect to risk management, we want to see how you evaluate and manage risk while also ensuring the organization takes on exciting and innovative opportunities.

We are interested in how your management practices result in setting priorities, as we know that there are many priorities competing for your attention, and limited bandwidth.

With respect to transparency, we want to know how you tell your communities about the work that you are doing, and set expectations with your stakeholders. How are stakeholders a part of the vision of the organization? What information is public and how? How do you negotiate expectations with stakeholders?

  1. Human resources. How do you build human capital at your organization while ensuring that your hiring, retention, and leadership practices are equitable?

We are looking at how you value, build, and invest in the most critical resource you have - your people. Please talk about benefits, performance reviews, and the ways you engage with your team - including your volunteers. We like to hear how you invest in the professional development of staff, what your retention rates are, and how build depth in your organization.

We want to know how you ensure that the way you bring people in, develop their capacity, and, ideally, promote them up and out, is done in a manner that is mindful of the oppressions that we might have to consider and address. Yes, this might sound like it’s the diversity equity and inclusion I question, but the people you work with are diverse and hold complex identities and ensuring your workplace thrives requires accounting for that - and we want to hear how you do it, measure your effectiveness, and listen to your team.

We also like to understand how you address power and hierarchy in your team-building work.  How does your management or leadership team lead and learn?

  1. Planning an devaluation. How does your organization define, track, assess and use program results to inform its management practices, learn and improve?

Great answers to this question have not just demonstrated how you quantify your impact, but also provided real data points that were then linked to a culture of continuous learning or adjustments of management practices.  We’re interested in to whom you report these outcomes internally and how they use the results to adjust the organizational management.

A lot of folks answer this question by telling us, “we use Salesforce!” That’s great, but we want to know what data you are capturing with it, whether they are outcomes and/or outputs, and what you intend to do with it - from a management perspective - as well as how that data get incorporated into your learning, and how you manage towards effectiveness and impact.

We know there are some social issues that nonprofits address that are hard to measure, but we want to know you have set outcomes, track indicators, establish targets towards those outcomes, and that you can tell the story of your success in clear and strategic ways.

  1. Technology. How does your organization manage your information technology resources and integrate them into your short- and long-term strategic and program goals?

Have you ever watched the IT Crowd? Don’t be that organization.

Again, it’s so great that you have Salesforce, and can work remotely, and use the cloud, and extra credit for cybersecurity insurance. BUT are you being strategic about how tech can move your mission forward? You could have the most amazing laptops in the world, but if you don’t communicate the strategy behind your tech upgrades, hardware, software, policies and use, then you don’t get a gold star.

For every programmatic development or strategic plan, have you built out the tech infrastructure supporting it? In the past, great answers to this question have highlighted the integration of tech into the entire organization’s work in real, tangible ways. Show us how tech permeates throughout your management, and how it intersects with your organization’s program goals.

Please be creative and expansive in your responses because we are also curious to learn how you are being innovative in your use of tech. Maybe you have an off-label use for a system that everyone takes for granted - let us know!

  1. Curiosity and innovation across all areas of management. How is your organization curious and innovative?

How do you foster a culture of feedback, the ability to communicate and question? How do you think outside the box about your management practices? How do you get staff to give and receive feedback or challenge each other in thoughtful, effective, and kind ways? Where has your organization tested new management styles? How do you fail fast? How do you know you’re being curious and innovative? We are curious about how you.