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Assembled Nonprofit Leaders Discuss How Organizations Can Go from "Good to Great"

Bridgestar Community Event Hosts Best-Selling Author Jim Collins

Boston, MA Jan. 12, 2005 – Jim Collins, best-selling author of Built to Last and Good to Great, recently spoke to a packed room of nonprofit leaders about how they can apply lessons from Good to Great to improve the effectiveness of their organizations and the sector as a whole. The event, entitled, "GOOD TO GREAT: Lessons for the Social Sector," was hosted by Bridgestar, an initiative of the Bridgespan Group whose goal is to attract, develop and connect senior leaders – established and aspiring – for greater effectiveness and social impact.

Detailed highlights of Collins' presentation are available in the January issue of "Leadership Matters" or online at

Each month "Leadership Matters" picks a different theme designed as a conversation about how to build and sustain effective nonprofit organizations. "Leadership Matters" is available to all Bridgestar members or, for a complimentary subscription, please email Previous issues have reported on the Bridgestar Survey on Governance Practices, offered the comprehensive "Guide to Navigating the Hiring Process," and have focused on topics such as the role of the nonprofit COO, improving nonprofit accountability, as well as best practices in compensation and performance evaluations.

Nonprofits organizations can become great, Collins said, but the challenges are more complex than for private sector companies. The reasons: first, it can be more difficult to run a nonprofit organization than a corporation because there is no single agreed-upon measure of success for a nonprofit, whereas it is easy to measure the success of a private sector company merely by the profit it generates.

Second, much of the funding available to nonprofits supports specific programs, not organizations. Additionally, in contrast to the private sector, where successful companies attract more capital, very successful nonprofit organizations can actually drive funding to less successful organizations because of the perception that the lesser performers need more help.

How do organizations become great? According to Collins, the country has become addicted to the concept of leadership. However, his research shows that greatness is not necessarily the result of charismatic leadership. Collins noted a negative correlation between charismatic leaders and great organizations. He explained that organizations dependent on charismatic leaders often can't be sustained, particularly if the leader leaves, while executives "afflicted with charisma bypass" get things done on the basis of fact and logical arguments, and have organizations that prevail over time. This does not mean that charismatic leaders are doomed to failure in building enduring greatness – indeed, leaders like Sam Walton and Thomas J. Watson Sr. did overcome their charisma to build organizations that transcended their personal presence – but, according to Colllins' research, those afflicted with charisma need to understand its limitations and deliberately compensate for its liabilities.

Moreover, he said, when charismatic leaders are wrong – and they can be wrong – the results are disastrous. (The solution for leaders blessed with charisma, Collins said, includes surrounding themselves with people who are not afraid to question ideas, concepts and beliefs.)

Rather than depending on charismatic leaders, Collins believes that nonprofit organizations can become great by following a four-step process:

  • Disciplined people: First who, then what. Many organizations say that people are their most important asset. That's not exactly accurate, says Collins. The right people are organizations' most important asset. Nonprofits need to be rigorous, not ruthless, in finding and attracting the right people – including volunteers. When the right people are "on the bus," Collins said, organizations can figure out the best path to greatness.

    And while they can't usually offer employee incentives and perks to the extent that for-profit companies can, according to Collins, the good news for nonprofits is that incentives don't work and are not tied to organizational greatness.

  • Disciplined thought: Live the Stockdale paradox and develop your hedgehog concept. Citing a lesson learned by Admiral James Stockdale while in captivity during the Vietnam War, Collins said that organizations must never confuse absolute faith with the ability to confront brutal truths. With this in mind, he said, organizations must develop a defining concept, or hedgehog, by determining what its people are most passionate about, by what it can do best in the world, and by the level of supporting resources at its disposal. He also urged patience, noting that it can take four to five years, in an iterative process, to define the hedgehog, and even longer at organizations constrained by internal traditions or policies such as tenure. Collins went on to describe two types of hedgehogs, one involving content and the other process, citing Walgreens as a "content hedgehog" because it "offers everything," and General Electric as a "process hedgehog," because the company excels at an intangible, developing executive talent, which is deployed through a wide range of content.
  • Disciplined action: The flywheel, not the doom loop. Great organizations gather momentum over time through their persistent focus and ability to coalesce resources – the flywheel – while their reactive colleagues grasp at straws, falling into the doom loop. Great organizations achieve a culture of discipline in which the entire team focuses on the hedgehog. With this freedom in context, people do not require traditional management. "The moment you feel you need to manage someone, you've made a mistake," Collins said, explaining that discipline doesn't mean to "do more," but to be able to say no.
  • Building greatness to last: Preserve the core values and stimulate progress. Organizations need to preserve their core ideology while simultaneously stimulating progress and change in everything that is not part of the core ideology, such as cultural and operating practices, and specific goals and strategies. For nonprofits, the secret to creating sustained greatness is knowing what shouldn't be changed – and changing everything else. Citing the Girl Scouts, Collins lauded a new leader who recognized that while the organization's values were strong, the practices being employed to develop girls into strong women – defined as housewives – were outdated.

Bridgestar community events
Collins' talk was part of a key Bridgestar initiative to generate and share knowledge with others in the sector. Previous community events included a talk with Diana Aviv, president of Independent Sector, on improving nonprofit accountability. "The nonprofit sector must nurture and retain effective senior talent to reach full potential," Simms said. "The Bridgestar community got a first look at new concepts that Collins and his team are exploring to provide a roadmap for nonprofits organizations to become great. Our philosophy is that social impact is dependent on having strong people in key roles – and that's the foundation of Jim's research. We are pleased to be able to partner with him to bring these messages forward."

About Bridgestar
Bridgestar (, an initiative of the Bridgespan Group, is a nonprofit organization building a member-driven community of individuals and organizations working to strengthen their careers, their institutions, and the nonprofit sector. Established in 2003, Bridgestar's goal is to attract, connect and support senior leaders – established and aspiring – for greater effectiveness and social impact.

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