The Power of Small in the Nonprofit World

It’s tough out there for a small nonprofit.

What chance does a small NPO have to fund its programs, make a name for itself and garner support when larger, “name brand” organizations always seem to grab the headlines?

In fact, one wonders if small nonprofits should even fight for credibility and support, or if should they just allow themselves to be swallowed up by larger ones.  Wouldn’t that be more efficient?

In many cases, collaboration and mergers are the ideal, increasing efficiency and reducing wasted resources.  But I would contend that smaller, well managed, specialized nonprofits are essential to the nonprofit ecosystem (and society at large).

Here’s why:

(1)  Smaller nonprofits are often more focused. They have a clear, defined mission. They recognized a specific need that was not being addressed (or not being addressed properly) and stepped up to fill the void.  This means that although they “only” do one thing, they do it very well.  And by remaining hyperfocused on this one element, the organization is able to better evaluate what works and what doesn’t.

(2)  Smaller nonprofits can often do more with less.  Not because they want to but because they have to – in order to survive.  They have neither the large budget nor the large staff to fall back on, so they are always thinking about how to do things quicker and more efficiently.  With fewer people involved in each process, they are also forced to take more personal responsibility for each task and weigh their options more seriously.  When you are a “little fish” in the big pond of nonprofits, one wrong move could mean the end of your organization.  So, wrong moves are avoided at all costs.

(3)  Smaller nonprofits answer to fewer bosses.  Unlike larger organizations, the chain of command is kept small (by necessity and matter of fact).  More often than not, all staff members have an opportunity to be heard and implement their own ideas.  And because the staff interacts with the highest levels of management on a regular basis, “bad ideas” can be killed quickly.  This means that more time is spent on developing and implementing the good ideas.  Because the organization runs leaner and more efficiently, reaction time is quicker for those in need.

(4)  Smaller nonprofits can be more nimble and flexible.  If something isn’t working as it should in a smaller NPO, a new plan can be formulated and set into motion all during a single staff meeting or conference call (with minimal muss or fuss).  And because they aren’t weighed down by bureaucratic baggage like their larger counterparts, they can also react to crisis in the field more quickly.  In fact, each staff member may even be allowed to make programmatic changes on the fly if it will allow for better and quicker delivery of services.

(5)  Smaller nonprofits can always measure their impact.  Again, by necessity.  Because a smaller NPO must constantly defend its right to exist, it must have stats, figures and success stories ready to share with constituents and donors.  And because they must always keep their eyes on the prize, they consistently produce at a high level.

(6)  Smaller nonprofits have passion to spare.  Because they are constantly in “the trenches,” their energy and intensity never has a chance to waiver or fade.  There are few people to pass the projects on to, so the person who conceives of a program or initiative is usually the one to implement it.  And, as such, will do so with a sense of pride and a desire to get it exactly right.

Again, all of the above is only true when the nonprofits in question are both small and well managed.  If they aren’t, they will become overwhelmed and inefficient and run themselves into the ground.

All too often, a small NPO will hear about a larger organization that is doing great work and will try to match their success in that area…without the proper knowledge or resources.  And the end result is always the same.  Lacking the necessary manpower, depth of leadership or proper planning capabilities, things move too fast for the small organization and they crash and burn.

It is, therefore, essential that smaller nonprofits have the opportunity to figure out what they are (and are not) capable of, set realistic goals, and be given access to the tools that will help them best accomplish those goals.

This learning process may include swapping ideas, stories and best practices with larger and smaller organizations.  It might also include tutorials and skill boosting workshops.  But the most important elements will always be a reality check and a shot in the arm.

As outlined above, small NPOs have a lot to offer.  These organizations just need to stop trying to emulate “the big boys” and realize that their strengths lie in being small.  As long as they stick to their visions, follow their hearts and continue to work on perfecting their own skills, these “specialists” are sure to be the key to true social change.


About the Author
Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer and an activist. Cofounder of She loves her people enough to call out the nonsense. See her work at