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Tools You Can Use

Stewardship Helps Get More Mission for the Money

Nonprofit Stewardship: A Better Way to Lead Your Mission-Based Organization

What makes a good steward?
How stewards make decisions
Nine characteristics of a successful nonprofit
How is your organization doing? (FREE Stewardship Assessment)


From Vince Hyman, former Publishing Director, Fieldstone Alliance:

HOW DO YOU KNOW when you've taken a wrong turn as a nonprofit staff member, board member, manager, or exec? One key is when you start thinking of the organization, it's staff, it's resources--anything about it--as MINE. As in, "My budget." "My program." "My organization."

It's a good thing, of course, that you feel deeply invested in the nonprofit you serve. But it's not your organization. It belongs to the community it serves. Your job is to be a good steward of the organization's resources--money, constituents, reputation, good will, volunteers, and so forth.

Peter Brinckerhoff, well-known nonprofit consultant and author--he's won the Terry McAdam Book Award twice--shows that to survive in today's environment of competition and scrutiny, nonprofits need strong mission-based stewardship.

Being a steward of your organization forces you to keep your organization's mission foremost--and helps you make decisions that are best for the people your organization serves. In other words, stewardship helps you do more good for more people.

Brinckerhoff defines stewardship this way

A mission-based steward is a person who consistently leads the organization in managing the resources of the community in a manner that maximizes its mission-effectiveness.

Stewardship has that "selfless" ring to it, but in fact, it has great benefits to the organization (and hence to the leaders of that organization). First, it works to continually think of the organization in terms of the community it serves. Second, it keeps attention where it belongs, on mission and values. Most of us got into the nonprofit world out of a sincere desire to do good for others. The stewardship approach helps you achieve that goal, and feel better about yourself at the same time.

What makes a good steward?
Eight qualities constitute good stewardship, according to Peter:

  1. Balance
  2. Humility
  3. Accountability
  4. Integrity
  5. The ability to motivate
  6. A thirst for innovation
  7. Communication skills
  8. A quest for lifelong learning

A steward has to balance many competing priorities: the competition between mission-drivers and money-drivers; the often differing goals of staff and board; the mixed needs and wants of the community that he or she serves (figuring out how to give people what they need in a form that they will want); and his or her own needs for satisfying work and restful play.

Good stewards have humility about their roles. When a steward is also a leader of the organization, that steward needs to manage with humility--the job is to support staff and board as they do their jobs, giving staff credit for success while taking blame for (but ensuring that staff are held accountable for) errors.

Accountability goes with the territory, and is broad. Stewards are accountable to the board, staff, community, clients, funders, and ultimately themselves.

Along with accountability, the good steward has integrity --he or she leads by example and manifests the values of the organization in daily decisions. Integrity is also one of the tools the steward employs to motivate staff. Stewards motivate by walking their talk, showing that they truly value staff, and by demonstrating respect.

Innovation is key to stewardship. Peter describes it as "the engine of improvement." Because nonprofits have to maximize their effectiveness at accomplishing their mission, innovation is a prerequisite of good stewardship. And the most innovative stewards actually improve not through wholesale shifts but through small, continuous improvements.

Communication is at least as much about listening as it is talking--and it is largely about being trustworthy by following through with the actions promised in words. The good steward must learn to communicate vision, passion, goals, and outcomes.

Finally, good stewards don't sit still. They are constantly learning--via conferences, site visits, information exchanges, learning circles, books, anything that helps them grow, so they can better serve the organization and the community.

How stewards make decisions
All organizations face tough decisions--and certainly the jobs of most organizational leaders revolve around decisions. And so the first and most important application of the stewardship concept is in making decisions. In Peter's book, Nonprofit Stewardship: A Better Way to Lead Your Mission-Based Organization, he provides the following decision-making tree:

Stewardship decision tree

The tool is made up of five decision points, each comprised of one question with several specific components. To move on from one decision point to the next, you must have a “Yes” answer to at least one component. The more “Yes” answers you get, the better.

The model allows for, even encourages, customization. Just remember to work through all five key decision points.

You can see that the model is sequential, with the numbered decision points in priority order, and the lettered components all of equal importance. As noted earlier, to proceed from one decision point to the next, you must get at least one “Yes” from a component question. The more yes answers the better. If you get no yes answers, except in absolutely extraordinary circumstances, the decision should be to delay or defer.

Nine characteristics of a successful nonprofit
Brinckerhoff proposes nine characteristics that a nonprofit steward seeks to bring out in the organization he or she serves. They are

  1. A viable mission
  2. A businesslike board
  3. A strong, well-educated staff
  4. Technological savvy
  5. Social entrepreneurism
  6. A bias for marketing
  7. Financial empowerment
  8. A compelling vision
  9. Tight controls

These characteristics are self-explanatory--and they are the subject of this newsletter's f-r-e-e tool--the Organizational Stewardship Assessment.

How is your organization doing? (FREE Stewardship Assessment)
The assessment is included in Peter's book, Nonprofit Stewardship and is based on the characteristics of successful not-for-profit organizations. It includes 75-questions that help you assess your stewardship in each of these areas.

It's fun to take, and it makes you think. It's especially helpful to talk it through with the board or leadership group within your organization. Here's a sampling of some of the questions:

A) Does the board refer to the mission statement when considering adding or dropping services?
B) Does the board view expenses as investment in mission?
C) Do staff formally evaluate their supervisors approach to fundraising?
D) Does board and staff consider technology an important investment in mission?

Peter Brinckerhoff also has a great web site at, with lots of ideas and a regular nonprofit management blog. The blog alone is worth a visit--Peter is a nonstop thinker and reader, and his ideas are fascinating!

Best regards,

Vince Hyman
Publishing Director
Fieldstone Alliance

May 24, 2005


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