The 2 Most Important Ingredients For Nonprofit Success

Former GE CEO Jack Welch shares his tips for success—tips that can lead to nonprofit success, too.


Savvy nonprofit leaders understand that knowledge and inspiration can come from anywhere, especially the private sector.

And when it comes to words of wisdom, there are few corporate executives quite as successful as Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. (After all, what nonprofit doesn’t want to increase revenue by 4,000% in two decades, as Welch did for GE?)

When Welch and his wife and co-author Suzy chatted recently with LinkedIn CEO Daniel Roth, they covered a wide range of topics, including principles for success that are just as applicable for nonprofit organizations as they are for private corporations.

While some of his most famous business lessons are still controversial—even in the corporate world—much of what Welch proposes is the sort of commonsense straight talk he’s best known for.

Here’s the biggest takeaway message for nonprofits:

Leadership today is all about two words: It’s all about truth and trust. You’ve got to have their back when they didn’t hit it out of the park, you’ve got have their back when they hit it out of the park.

When they trust you, you’ll get truth. And if you get truth, you get speed. If you get speed, you’re going to act. That’s how it works.

Without truth and trust, teams that must work together cannot build a solid foundation upon which to structure their organizations. This is is just as true for nonprofit success as it is for corporate success.

Instead of shareholder system—which Welch famously derided as a “dumb idea” not long after he invented it—nonprofits are instead beholden to donors and constituents.

Read on for more of Jack’s words of wisdom that you can apply to your nonprofit.

On the today’s speed of business vs. Welch’s time at GE:

In my first days in GE … people were preparing the budget starting in July for the big show and tell in December. By that time today, the world is upside down. [For instance,] oil and currency in six months have flipped upside down. If you can’t move, you’re dead.

On the dangers of becoming a big company:

You’re a big company. You have massive investments, tons of people. You’ve got plans that, even though you make strategy sessions all the time, you have to know what’s going on, you have to be able to change. Big companies can’t change quickly. Every big company’s gotta be a small company in their head. You want the muscle of a big company, and the soul of a small company. I fought for that every day. I never got all the way there, but I fought for it every day.

On how people inside big companies have to act:

You want people to think every day about speed. So you think about things like layers. If I’m a middle manager, how tough am I making it for you to get things done? Have I got a system where I can get action because of you? Or am I … making you get approval, checking on somebody else? “What do you think Dan’ll think about this?” No. I want you to be spontaneous, I want you at me.

On the simple way to lead:

You’ve got a conference room right down across the hall there.  People walk into your conference room.  You’re the boss.  They’re spinning you.  They’re giving you a flavor that might sell. If a neon light was flashing at that room, “Truth only! Truth only!”  think how much faster you’d be. You wouldn’t have to go through the, “What do they really mean?”  But that only comes from trust.

Does your nonprofit have what it needs to use truth and trust to propel it forward?

This is one of the reasons we believe so strongly in our philosophy that all of your mission-critical information needs to be in a single comprehensive system. It is the only way everyone can work from the same set of data to get a single version of the truth.

It is the only way everyone can come to trust the information to make quality decisions about strategy and tactics moving forward.

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