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Summary: How to Save the World in Six (Not So Easy) Steps: Bringing Out the Best in Nonprofits by David Schizer

  • The book is a guide for nonprofit leaders, board members, and donors who want to improve the performance and impact of their organizations.
  • The book identifies six core actions that nonprofits need to take to advance their mission effectively and mobilize support: plan, persevere, prioritize, pivot, publicize, and partner.
  • The book draws from the author’s extensive experience and interviews with other nonprofit leaders, and provides relevant examples, anecdotes, data, and tips.


The nonprofit sector plays an integral part in building a better world, as humanity attempts to navigate threats such as climate change. But many nonprofits are stymied by issues such as mediocrity, stagnation and even corruption, writes leading nonprofit scholar David Schizer. Fortunately, you can lead your nonprofit organization toward embodying its mission with the six steps laid out in Schizer’s inspiring guide. Learn how to leverage a clear strategic process, maintain momentum, choose the right projects to focus on, respond flexibly in the face of uncertainty, embrace transparency and create strong relationships with funders who believe in your cause.

Summary: How to Save the World in Six (Not So Easy) Steps: Bringing Out the Best in Nonprofits by David Schizer


  • Nonprofits are crucial to “saving the world,” yet many are in need of a major transformation.
  • Reflect on your biggest strengths and weaknesses before triggering change at your nonprofit.
  • Step One – Plan rigorously, with a clear strategic process that drives results.
  • Step Two – Persevere, maintain momentum and practice healthy conflict management.
  • Step Three – Prioritize your most impactful initiatives, identifying meaningful metrics.
  • Step Four – Pivot when facing uncertainty, prioritizing the right people, initiatives and strategies.
  • Step Five – Publicize your ideas, embracing honesty and accountability.
  • Step Six – Partner with donors who believe in your mission.


Nonprofits are crucial to “saving the world,” yet many are in need of a major transformation.

“Saving the world” amid the complex challenges and distressing problems facing humanity today requires supporting nonprofits to do their best work. Nonprofits are critical players in helping societies navigate burning issues, ranging from climate change to racial justice. In the United States alone, nonprofits spend over $2.5 trillion each year, supported by the donations of millions of Americans, who find fulfillment in aligning themselves with organizations whose values and missions they believe in. However, many problems plague nonprofits today, ranging from professional misconduct to stagnation and mediocrity.

“Bringing out the best in nonprofits isn’t easy, but for many of us, it is a labor of love.”

Failing to advance your mission in the nonprofit sector is heartbreaking, but fortunately, not inevitable. If you’re a leader in the nonprofit sector, triggering the change needed to effectively pursue your mission can be achieved with a six-step process: plan, persevere, prioritize, pivot, publicize, and partner. Enacting these six steps may require a culture shift – it’s essential that you build teams capable of navigating uncertainty, in which people feel safe challenging the status quo. Good intentions alone won’t suffice as you attempt to steer your nonprofit toward its goals: It’s not enough to “feel good” about a cause you care about – you also have to “do good,” advancing the right mission with aligned action and buy-in from all stakeholders as you embark on your six-step journey.

Reflect on your biggest strengths and weaknesses before triggering change at your nonprofit.

Nonprofits’ biggest sources of opportunity are also the areas in which their most significant challenges lie, which include:

  • Goals and mission – Nonprofits inspire people to rally together around causes they believe will help build a better world, stepping in when corporations aren’t willing or able to tackle tough problems. However, if their mission is misguided or simply becomes stale, this creates challenges.
  • Motivation – Volunteers and nonprofit professionals motivated by ideals rather than money can produce outstanding results. However, sometimes ideals-driven workers can become inflexible and dogmatic, and without financial incentives such as profit sharing, it can sometimes be hard to motivate nonprofit workers to increase performance.
  • Diversity – Nonprofits have the autonomy to champion and support underrepresented groups and promote diversity. However, sometimes they can become insular, and lack the diverse representation present in the communities they’re trying to serve.
  • Autonomy – Nonprofits benefit from their independent structure, which enables them to experiment with novel approaches. But when unchecked, this autonomy can sometimes coincide with a lack of accountability.
  • Funding – Nonprofits benefit from the voluntary support of funders, but of course, can struggle to raise this funding.

Step One – Plan rigorously, with clear strategic process that drives results.

While it may be tempting to continue the status quo, a rigorous planning process can help you reflect on whether it’s time to experiment with new approaches. Your process should support disciplined experimentation, enabling you to seize opportunities and learn from failures. Include input from the different groups within your organization, while taking inventory of whether there are any skills gaps or areas of overlap between teams at your organization. Developing an effective, bottom-up planning process is instrumental in driving results, clarifying your priorities, building internal support, raising money, promoting innovation and enhancing coordination.

“A successful planning process not only identifies promising ideas and clarifies trade-offs. It also breaks down silos, so colleagues in different groups share information and work more closely together.”

A well-orchestrated planning process can drive fundraising, giving organizations an opportunity to reach out to funders with new updates. The frequency with which you plan is ultimately a subjective choice, but an annual cycle tends to work well. Consider also scheduling more inventive planning sessions every three to five years to prevent stagnancy. Getting your strategic team to answer the following three questions can help you better plan the allocation of resources: 1) “How important is the problem we are trying to solve?” 2) “How effective is our response?” and 3) “Are we the right organization to respond?” Ask teams to formulate multiple budget scenarios, making it easier for senior management, such as your CFO, to integrate each department’s ideas and make final budgetary decisions. Consider formalizing a peer-review process, enabling different department heads to get feedback from one another before sending their final recommendations up to your senior management.

Step Two – Persevere, maintain momentum and practice healthy conflict management.

To channel the perseverance you need when executing your plan, ensure you have a critical mass of volunteers, professionals and funders aligning to support your direction. Stakeholders must stay in their respective lanes – the board exists only to provide oversight and shouldn’t mistake its role for a management one. Rather, board members should focus on appointing the right leadership, clarifying expectations and giving feedback to the CEO, overseeing the budget, and ensuring compliance with regulatory bodies. Maintain an operational pace that feels sustainable for both professionals and the board, rather than trying to force people to work too rapidly.

“So how do we press on? Where do we find the strength? The answer, of course, is the mission.”

If you’re pushing for needed change within your organization, recruit the allies you need to support your desired transformation by giving people an opportunity to take ownership of, and gain credit for, their role as changemakers. To help different departments and organizations work together and build momentum, create opportunities for people to get together to discover shared goals and interests, while highlighting the benefits of collaboration (for example, monthly dinners). Of course, some degree of resistance and skepticism is inevitable when challenging the status quo, so be prepared to compromise on issues that aren’t vital to your success, choosing your battles carefully. If your organization has a difficult time managing conflict, it’s time for a culture shift, as team members should be able to “disagree without being disagreeable” – people should feel psychologically safe enough to share their perspectives with honesty.

Step Three – Prioritize your most impactful initiatives, identifying meaningful metrics.

When setting priorities as a nonprofit, don’t make the mistake of simply choosing the initiatives most likely to yield more funding, perhaps trying to come up with some “glitzy” new idea to attract donors. Your donors may tempt you with large donations, but if there are strings attached to their “gifts” that distract you from doing your valuable mission-centered work, walk away. It’s difficult for nonprofits to say no to gifts, but you’ll build your reputation by exercising discernment. Consider taking inspiration from tech companies and running pilot programs – collect data to determine which initiatives will most effectively help you pursue your mission, and prioritize them.

“In setting priorities, nonprofits should not simply ‘follow the money,’ running programs that are popular with donors but do not advance the mission most effectively.”

You’ll set better priorities if you develop metrics that reflect the impact of your initiatives. For example, the organization Thread, which pairs young people who are underperforming academically with volunteers who support them in their studies, used “touch points” as metrics. Thread found that the more contact students had with supportive volunteers, the more likely they were to graduate high school. It isn’t always easy to quantify the impact you have on people’s lives though, especially if you work for a faith or spirituality-based organization. Some nonprofits bypass this challenge by regularly asking those they serve to numerically rate their experience with their organization via questionnaires.

Step Four – Pivot when facing uncertainty, prioritizing the right people, initiatives and strategies.

One of the best tools you have when leading a nonprofit in uncertain times lies in hiring capable, self-motivated team members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It can also help to screen for candidates who are comfortable when facing change, and who display humility. Keep the best people by giving them regular, effective feedback, while creating a positive team culture that treats workers as human beings, and offers other perks (for example, flexibility) in lieu of high corporate salaries. If your nonprofit is being held back by team members consistently delivering subpar work, pivot by replacing these employees – otherwise, your best employees will feel demoralized and wonder why they’re working with an organization that doesn’t share their commitment to excellence.

“To raise their game, nonprofits should improve on all fronts. How can they enhance quality? Can they do a better job of reaching the right beneficiaries? Can they help more of them? Can they get the same benefit at a lower cost?”

When you have a solid team of talented, inspired people in place, you’ll find they develop innovative solutions to problems as they arise, helping you pivot in the face of challenges. Consider pivoting by reimagining your goals and projects, reinventing the way you pursue your mission. Don’t overly focus on the impulse to “brand” your nonprofit, unless constantly sharing ideas is an integral part of living your mission. Sometimes, you’ll pivot by “doubling down” on your most impactful projects, shifting your priorities to invest more resources into what’s best helping you fulfill your mission. You may also choose to pivot by changing your approach to getting things done – perhaps you could harness the power of digital technology or utilize volunteer labor more strategically.

Step Five – Publicize your ideas, embracing honesty and accountability.

There are four important reasons you should publicize the details of the work your nonprofit does: It helps other organizations that share your mission learn from your experiences; it connects you with donors who share your goals and values; it motivates your board and professionals to improve performance; and it helps you hold yourself accountable while giving others the tools to monitor your work. It’s essential that those who speak to the media embrace accuracy and honesty, taking steps to both ensure the veracity of the information shared and boost credibility (for example, asking independent experts to verify the nonprofit’s impact). Post your annual strategy on your website, transparently sharing the result of your planning process with the public.

“Sharing information is important when nonprofits are well run and even more so when they are not.”

Unlike for-profit firms, for mission-driven firms it often makes sense to share winning strategies, as there is no limit on how many organizations can mobilize to perform good work. For example, at the onset of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it didn’t make sense for the organization Robin Hood – a pioneer in distributing clean needles – to try to stop other nonprofits from doing the same. That said, there is a time and a place for secrecy – perhaps you need to protect vulnerable clients or want to avoid sharing your donor list to prevent others from poaching supporters.

Step Six – Partner with donors who believe in your mission.

To raise more donor funding, treat donors like your partners, engaging them in the following five ways:

  • Inspiration – Donors will feel more inspired to invest in your nonprofit if you give them opportunities to interact with and/or hear from the individuals you serve directly, perhaps inviting them into the field or sharing first-hand accounts of those impacted by your work.
  • Improvements – Give donors opportunities to share their feedback, identifying areas in which you could perform better. If donors are disappointed with your organization’s performance, consider asking disaffected individuals to help you fix the problem.
  • Involvement – Donors may want to expand their roles, finding other ways to get involved in your organization, ranging from posting on social media to fundraising.
  • Integration – Motivate donors to support your nonprofit by providing them with opportunities to join a community of individuals who share their values and commitment to your cause.
  • Interests – Donors should have the ability to choose to support an initiative that aligns with their particular interests. You may choose to co-create interventions, perhaps giving donors detailed reports on the status of their chosen initiative. That said, it’s important that you partner with donors who believe in your core work, rather than allow fundraising to dictate your priorities. When you partner with donors who truly align with your mission, you’ll drive success and ensure they treat your challenges as their own.

About the Author

David M. Schizer is a faculty member of Columbia Law School, where he became the youngest dean at 35. As a leading scholar of business law, nonprofits, tax and energy, he’s taught at Harvard, Yale, Hebrew University, the University of Tokyo, and other institutions. He has 25 years’ experience in the nonprofit sector, and served as CEO of the humanitarian organization JDC.


Nonprofit, Management, Leadership, Business, Social Change, Strategy, Philanthropy, Self Help


The book is a practical and insightful guide for nonprofit leaders, board members, and donors who want to improve the performance and impact of their organizations. The author, David Schizer, is a former dean of Columbia Law School and former CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, one of the largest international humanitarian organizations in the world. Drawing from his extensive experience and interviews with other nonprofit leaders, Schizer identifies six core actions that nonprofits need to take to advance their mission effectively and mobilize support. These are:

  • Plan: Run a rigorous planning process that involves setting clear goals, assessing the current situation, identifying opportunities and challenges, and choosing the best strategies and tactics.
  • Persevere: Line up internal support by building a strong team, fostering a culture of excellence, resolving conflicts, and motivating staff and volunteers.
  • Prioritize: Set priorities by asking three key questions: What is the most important problem to solve? What is the most effective way to solve it? What is the most efficient way to solve it?
  • Pivot: Test innovations by experimenting with new ideas, measuring results, learning from failures, and scaling successes.
  • Publicize: Share ideas and hold yourself accountable by communicating your vision, values, and achievements to your stakeholders, partners, and beneficiaries, and by soliciting feedback and criticism.
  • Partner: Raise more money by involving donors in the work by cultivating relationships, understanding their motivations and preferences, offering them meaningful engagement opportunities, and showing them the impact of their contributions.

I found the book to be very informative, engaging, and inspiring. The author combines academic rigor with practical wisdom, and illustrates his points with relevant examples and anecdotes from his own career and from other successful nonprofits. The book is well-written, well-organized, and well-researched, with references to various sources of data and evidence. The book is also very accessible and easy to read, with clear language, helpful summaries, and actionable tips.

The book offers a comprehensive framework for nonprofit management that covers all aspects of the organization’s life cycle, from planning to execution to evaluation. The book also addresses some of the common challenges and pitfalls that nonprofits face, such as mission drift, internal politics, donor fatigue, external competition, and changing environments. The book provides useful advice on how to overcome these obstacles and achieve excellence in nonprofit work.

The book is not only relevant for nonprofit professionals, but also for anyone who cares about social change and wants to make a difference in the world. The book shows how nonprofits can be powerful agents of change that can tackle some of the most pressing problems of our time. The book also shows how nonprofits can collaborate with other sectors, such as government, business, academia, media, and civil society, to create synergies and leverage resources.

The book is a must-read for anyone who loves nonprofits but worries about inefficiency, infighting, and inertia. The book is also a must-read for anyone who wants to learn how to save the world in six (not so easy) steps.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

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