Book Review:  The Future of Nonprofits:  Innovate and Thrive in the Digital Age by David J. Neff and Randal C. Moss

The Future of Nonprofits - coverWhen I was asked to review The Future of Nonprofits, I’ll admit that I was a little reluctant. I typically prefer to read and review fiction.  The information I use to stay current on nonprofit and volunteer trends comes from blogs, webinars, articles, workshops, podcasts, and a variety of sources and generally doesn’t include books.

I’ve worked in the nonprofit sector for years, though, both as a leader of small nonprofits and as a resource to nonprofits of all sizes.  I’ve observed recent trends in the sector and struggled to adapt, and I’ve watched others do the same.

As I started reading The Future of Nonprofits, a funny thing happened. I’d find myself referring to it in conversations, or working key points into discussions and presentations.  In fact, I’ve been recommending it to board members, community leaders, and local nonprofit staff, saying, “It’ll be available soon, you should definitely consider picking up a copy.”

What makes this book different from the gazillions of others written for nonprofits? It’s timely, it’s relevant.  It provides genuinely insightful and helpful advice, observations and strategies, scaled for nonprofits ranging from large to small.

  • It explains the differences between strategic planning and “futuring”, and why future scanning is so crucial for nonprofit success.  For smaller organizations that might not have the resources to future scan, the authors suggest ways to create a nimble and flexible organization poised to quickly make the most of new trends.
  • It scrutinizes business management strategies that nonprofits are beginning to use (Lean, Six Sigma and TQM) and it carefully considers which aspects could work for nonprofits and explains why others won’t.
  • It offers case studies and interviews – many rooted in social media – as a means to gain a deeper understanding of the successful transition from idea to reality.
  • It suggests people and organizations to watch and follow – sector leaders across a variety of platforms that will enable the reader to stay connected long after the book is finished.
  • It provides concrete suggestions for embracing innovation from start to finish and removing barriers to implementation (favorites include sample job descriptions and interview questions targeting innovative qualities for staff members).
  • It predicts trends for both nonprofit fundraising and communications. (Seriously worth the read for these alone.)

What doesn’t this book do?  It doesn’t bombard you with lofty ideas and leave you flailing around as you try to implement them (or, more likely, as you immediately get frustrated and give up).

The authors understand that one of the most difficult aspects of change is actually DOING IT. Neff and Moss acknowledge that creativity is important (and many nonprofits have developed successful systems for generating new ideas), “But the real leverage is in the back end: the ability to execute ideas. Ideas will only get you so far.”  (from The Future of Nonprofits).

There are only a couple of downsides to this book that I could find.  The first is that, while the authors intentionally tried to scale to a range of nonprofit sizes (and they did a great job), the process may seem overwhelming to smaller agencies.  I’d encourage smaller nonprofits to give it a chance, and to consider the fact that their very size may make them more nimble and better positioned to put some of the ideas into practice quickly and with a minimum of fuss.

The second is that some folks who could truly benefit from the book may not read it, or may dismiss it because much of The Future of Nonprofits challenges the, “This is the way we’ve always done things.” mentality.

“…as long as we hold onto our preconceived notions of what our constituents want and how they use our products and services, we will be forever tied to our existing offerings.”  (from The Future of Nonprofits)

As nonprofits, we need to embrace feedback.  Even better, we need to listen and learn where the gaps are and objectively think about ways to better serve our constituents.  We need to embrace change (or at least learn not to fear it).  And we can do this by trying our best to keep up, or we can choose to approach it strategically through some of the lessons shared in this book.

Is now the right time for innovation?  During a prolonged economic crisis?  Shouldn’t we hang on to our limited resources with both hands, and focus exclusively on providing core services?  According to Neff and Moss, this is exactly the wrong approach to take – first of all, what better time to embrace managed creativity than during challenging times? Second, it’s almost impossible to regain an environment that embraces innovation once it’s been stifled, even with the best of intentions.

In the words of the authors:

“The bottom line is this book is going to help your organization do more relevant things faster, less expensively, and drive key business metrics.” (from The Future of Nonprofits).

I couldn’t agree more.

More information on the book is here:  http://www.thefutureofnonprofits.com/

Quotes from the book used with permission for the purposes of this review.  Book cover image from Flickr, some rights reserved under Creative Commons.