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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

How Can Nonprofit Leaders Create Effective Community Change?

Among nonprofit organizations, human service nonprofits, in particular, serve public interests to improve the community. Each community brings diverse challenges for the government, nonprofit, and private sectors to address; and these complex social issues are rarely solved by single organizations. Aid programs may be necessary to benefit the individuals currently in poverty, but it does not provide a lasting solution (Dees, 2008). Many leaders are working towards collaboration; however, “larger cultural contexts remain firmly anchored to the myth of the heroic individual leader” (Senge, et. al, 2015). Understanding how a nonprofit leader can catalyze and guide systemic development to foster collaboration may lead to creating effective change on a greater scale. (Senge, et. al, 2015). 

Nationally and in Arizona, systemic challenges are present. For example, the poverty rate in the United States increased from 12.4 percent in 2000 to 15.5 percent in 2015; and was even higher in Arizona where the 2015 poverty rate was 18.2 percent (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016).  While poverty was rising, so were national high school graduation rates. In 2011, the U.S. graduation rate was 79 percent and the rate in 2015 was 83.2 percent. The Arizona high school graduation rate dropped from 78 percent in 2011 to 77.4 percent in 2015 (National Center for Education, 2016). Scharmer (2008) accuses these failures to the blind “deeper dimension of leadership and transformational change” (Scharmer, 2008). While these problems are seen by some as intractable, there are opportunities for innovation by nonprofit practitioners through leadership advancements. (Senge, et. al, 2015).   

Many human service nonprofits measure themselves by the number of individuals served or programs administered. Success is often seen by increasing these numbers. (Shore, Hammond, Celep, 2013). Yet in the community, problems such as poverty and high school graduation rates are becoming worse (U.S. Census Bureau, 2016). Nonprofit programs were created to focus on symptoms individually, rather than addressing the root cause. To create effective community change, nonprofit leaders must look to benefit the voiceless through sustainable, systemic efforts. (Shore, Hammond, Celep, 2013). 

Four solutions nonprofit leaders can implement which may create effective change in a community are to: 1) set higher goals, 2) listen to beneficiaries, 3) engage in collective impact and 4) become advocates. All of these contributions as a leader may better serve the clients of an organization and create positive change in the lives of future generations. 

Setting higher goals, which impact the community at large, allow nonprofit leaders to focus on strategic implementations which affect these benchmarks. It challenges leaders to take responsibility for the community. To be effective in these goals, nonprofit leaders must engage beneficiaries, which live with issues being addressed. Often times, gaining knowledge from these clients may be difficult, especially when working with youth or homeless. It is essential. Nonprofit leaders must find a way to incorporate these viewpoints.

Cross-sector collaboration is important, but collective impact models may create more effective change. The core conditions of collective impact are a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support. Leaders must have a mindset shift when incorporating any type of collaboration. It can be difficult to work with partners throughout different sectors. To create systemic change and benefit generations it is essential to adapt (Kania, Hanleybrown, Juster, 2014).

Nonprofit advocacy is the bridge, which connects beneficiaries to the policies, which affect them. Becoming an advocate provides legislators a resource to the issues the individuals they serve. Advocacy promotes innovative solutions to benefit the community. Nonprofits must advocate to open doors for clients and further the mission of the organization (The Nonprofit Association of Oregon, 2017). 


(2017). The Nonprofit Association of Oregon. Public Policy Advocacy: What, Why and How. Retrieved from:

Buteau, E., Gopal, R., & Buchanan, P. (2014). Hearing from those we seek to help: Nonprofit practices and perspectives in beneficiary feedback (Rep.). Retrieved from The Center for EffectivePhilanthropywebsite: 08/CEP-Hearing-from-Those-We-Seek-to-Help.pdf

Kania, J., Hanleybrown, F., Splansky Juster, J. (2014). Essential mindset shifts for collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2014. 

Klein, P. (2015). Are nonprofits getting in the way of social change? Stanford Social Innovation Review. National Center for Education. (2016). Common Core of Data. Retrieved from:

Scharmer, C. O. (2008). Uncovering the blind spot of leadership. Leader to Leader. Executive Forum, Winter 2008, 52-59.

Senge, P., Hamilton, H., Kania, J. (2015). The dawn of system leadership. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter 2015, 27-33. 

Shore, B., Hammond, D. Celep, A. (2013). When good is not good enough. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Fall 2013. 

Twersky, F., Buchanan, P., & Threlfall, V. (2013). Listening to those who matter most, the beneficiaries. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 11(2), 41. United States Census Bureau. (2016).American Community Survey. Retrieved from:  

Hallie Rexer is a graduate of the Arizona State University Master of Nonprofit Leadership and Management program. She completed her undergraduate studies at Saint Francis University in 2016. Passionate about youth development, Hallie secured a development position at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Arizona leading stewardship activities and managing fundraising objectives. As a “Big Sister” herself, Hallie learns the positive impact having a mentor can make in a young person’s life. As a member of the Young Professionals Network in Phoenix, Hallie continues to grow as a leader. 


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