Moving Non Profits from a Fixed to Growth Mindset

A colleague on LinkedIn recently posted about the challenges of participating in discussions online with those who work in the nonprofit sector. The experience he had in an online community, caused him to vent that the sector was in many ways, its own worst enemy. We are negative, we view “change” as distrustful, we “poo-poo” on ideas that are different. Generally, for a sector that is about helping people, we are just not all that nice to each other, or to different ideas.

Why is this?

I think this attitude has several historical causes.

  1. Resource Scarcity: Nonprofits often operate in environments of limited resources, competing for funding from donors, grants, and government sources. This scarcity can lead to a mindset focused on survival rather than growth and abundance, emphasizing the challenges they face over the opportunities for expansion and innovation.
  2. Mission-driven Focus: Nonprofits are primarily mission-driven, prioritizing social impact over financial gain. This noble pursuit can sometimes lead to a martyr mentality, where sacrifices are seen as necessary for the cause. This focus can overshadow the strategic planning needed for growth and sustainability.
  3. External Perceptions and Expectations: Society often holds nonprofits to a different standard than for-profit entities, expecting them to operate with minimal overhead and direct most funds to their cause. This pressure can discourage investment in areas critical for growth, such as marketing, technology, and staff development, as these are often viewed skeptically by the public and donors.
  4. Funding Structures: The way nonprofits are funded can reinforce a victim mentality. Reliance on donations and grants means that organizations must continually highlight the severity of the problems they are addressing to attract funding, which can perpetuate a narrative of crisis and need.
  5. Lack of Access to Capital: Unlike for-profit enterprises, nonprofits have limited access to capital markets to fund growth or innovation. This can hamper their ability to invest in new opportunities, scale their operations, or take risks, reinforcing a cautious or conservative mindset.
  6. Cultural and Organizational Dynamics: The culture within some nonprofits may valorize self-sacrifice and hard work under tough conditions, which can contribute to a martyr complex. This is often seen in the romanticizing of “doing more with less,” rather than striving for operational efficiency or organizational growth.

How Can We Move Towards Change?

Change is hard. I get it. But I think change is also an opportunity to begin changing how we view and do things.

Let’s look at some examples of how a fixed mindset versus growth mindset works in our language and dialogue:

Organizational Attitude:

  • Fixed: “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • Growth: “Let’s explore new methods and innovate to increase our impact.”

Facing Challenges:

  • Fixed: “This challenge is insurmountable.”
  • Growth: “Every challenge is an opportunity for us to learn and grow.”

Feedback and Criticism:

  • Fixed: “We failed at our goal.”
  • Growth: “We learned valuable lessons that will help us improve.”

Success of Others:

  • Fixed: “Other organizations’ successes take away from ours.”
  • Growth: “We can learn from the success of others and collaborate for greater impact.”

Skill Development:

  • Fixed: “We don’t have the expertise to do this.”
  • Growth: “We can develop our skills and partner with others to accomplish this.”

Resource Limitations:

  • Fixed: “We don’t have enough resources.”
  • Growth: “Let’s get creative with how we use and increase our resources.”

Strategic Planning:

  • Fixed: “There’s no point in setting ambitious goals.”
  • Growth: “Setting ambitious goals motivates us to stretch and grow.”

Handling Setbacks:

  • Fixed: “Setbacks prove that our efforts aren’t worth it.”
  • Growth: “Setbacks are part of the journey and teach us resilience.”


  • Fixed: “Collaboration dilutes our brand.”
  • Growth: “Through collaboration, we can leverage diverse strengths for greater impact.

These are just a starting point and some ideas. How else can we begin to make real change in the sector, if we don’t begin with ourselves?

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