The Charismatic Organization

Eight Ways to Grow a Nonprofit that Builds Buzz, Delights Donors, and Energizes Employees

“What distinguishes a good nonprofit from a great nonprofit? At the end of the day, the great, charismatic nonprofits are not necessarily those that have charismatic leaders, but those that can create strong social capital,” said Deborah Jospin at a Center for American Progress event about the book she co-authored with Shirley Sagawa, The Charismatic Organization: Eight Ways to Grow a Nonprofit that Builds Buzz, Delights Donors, and Energizes Employees. Nina Easton, Washington Bureau Chief of Fortune Magazine, moderated the discussion with Sagawa and Jospin.

The danger of basing an organization around one person with charismatic leadership qualities is that the focus can quickly become the leader rather than the organization. A leader can always leave an organization. This is why Sagawa and Jospin argue that building a fundamentally strong, team based nonprofit will be a more effective method in the long run than relying on individual leadership.

“There are two kinds of social capital,” explained Sagawa. “One kind brings people together and unites them in a cause so that they want to be part of that community.” This is especially valuable because it means that, in hard economic times, an organization’s donors and supporters will still be there and feel a connection to that cause. The other type of social capital is “bridging social capital.” This means that an organization is able to reach beyond its immediate network, which allows it to expand their donor base or political influence.

Having the right tools to weather economic downturns is particularly important to nonprofits at the moment. The criteria for being a charismatic organization that Sagawa and Jospin outline in their book are also good indicators that an organization will survive difficult economic times.

City Year, a nonprofit AmeriCorps program, is a good example of how social capital can come to the rescue in troubled times. Several years ago, City Year came to the aid of AmeriCorps when the federal program lost a significant amount of federal funding. City Year successfully intervened to secure more funding for AmeriCorps because of its broad and diverse network of partners and supporters. “They pulled out all the stops,” said Sagawa, “they got over 100 editorials written and put pressure on Congress to stop the de-funding of AmeriCorps.”

The book stresses that it is important for nonprofits to have a can-do attitude. “People don’t want to throw good money at bad [organizations]… generosity hasn’t decreased with the economy but people want to give money to an organization that presents a compelling vision of the future,” said Sagawa. If organizations present a strategy and exude confidence about how they will ride out the economic down turn they will inspire faith and enthusiasm in their donors.

Jospin and Sagawa also argue that nonprofits’ operations should be driven by data. Keeping track of data allows organizations to see what programs are effective and leads to more efficient use of resources. Presenting specific data records also facilitates greater transparency for donors and board members, which in turn builds trust and social capital for the organization.

The book also emphasizes the importance of building buzz about a nonprofit. Smart use of technology and online social networking is one important component. An excellent example of the successful intersection of social networking and “personal interaction is Justin Rockefeller’s organization Generation Engage,” said Sagawa. “He used Facebook to fundraise, and when he called a 500 dollar donor to thank him, the connection resulted in the donor funding an entire program.”

“Donors Choose is another organization that has found innovative ways to use technology,” Jospin pointed out. They post requests for materials from schools online allow donors to go to the site and choose what they want to contribute. In return the students write personal thank you letters, which have helped the organization attract attention and build its donor network.

A charismatic nonprofit is mission focused, tells a compelling story about why the organization is important, and has a strong team-based mentality that values each staff member’s contributions. By striving to achieve the principles Sagawa and Jospin write about, nonprofits can become equipped with the tools to grow, last and make a substantive difference.

Featured Authors:
Deborah Jospin, co-author, The Charismatic Organization
Shirley Sagawa, co-author, The Charismatic Organization; visiting fellow, Center for American Progress

Moderated by:
Nina Easton, Washington Bureau Chief, Fortune magazine


Center for American Progress, 1333 H St. NW, 10th Floor, Washington, DC , 20005

Additional information

A light lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m.