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Following our successful Good Ideas Forum on Race Equity, we have posted resources as provided by Equity in the Center.

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CAR & DRIVER: How Leadership, Business Models, Vision, and Strategy work together to Power a Nonprofit.

Leslie Bonner4

Recently I took my car in for its yearly inspection. As usual it was a long process that resulted in the need for many expensive repairs. The mechanic came out and said to me, “Look with a few minor things like replacing a head light and wipers, your car will pass inspection, but just barely. Your brakes are worn (attributed to my driving style) and might become dangerous in a few months. Also, if you are planning to drive to a distant destination, we suggest several other parts in the engine should be replaced, otherwise you may not make it or, at the very least, you will be wasting fuel because the car isn’t running efficiently.” I found myself having to make decisions about where to invest my $$, short term and long term consequences, and where I felt comfortable taking a risk. It also made me think about my driving style and about my destinations over the next year.

This was interesting, because in our work with nonprofits we have been advancing a car analogy that describes how a nonprofit has key aspects that must be present and working together in order to not only pass inspections but be sustainable. We presented some of this analogy in our recent seminar and you can see the slides here.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll take the analogy a bit further.

  • The Car = the nonprofit and how it is perceived by stakeholders. Model, year, color, condition etc. are all variable and part of the brand.
  • The Engine = the organization’s business model; all the programs, structures, processes, partnerships, etc… that when working together allow the organization to move forward and add value. This is my partner Kate’s area of expertise, and she has provided a better definition in this article.
  • The Drivers = the Board (who also can be viewed as the car’s owner), the CEO, and the leadership staff.
  • The Destination and Travel Route = the organization’s vision and strategic plan
  • The Dashboard = the metrics, measures and data that serve as indicators of progress and as a warning system.

In my version of the analogy, the staff play a revolving role. Sometimes they are the passengers in the car, often they are the fuel that makes the car run, how they are used and structured also makes them part of the Business model.

A large part of our shared work centers on helping organizations agree on their destination/vision and determine the best routes to get there in the strategic plan. But my work is most often with the car’s drivers (leadership staff and board), their driving abilities and knowledge, their relationships and communications, and the challenges they face when trying to get staff and culture to change as they adapt the business model to keep up with an ever-changing environment. For me, the culture of the organization, created by history, leadership and staff, is the invisible but powerful glue that binds everything together. Organizational Culture can resist change and innovation, or it can power it. (see article here)

I have always thought that the Drivers and their issues were paramount.  After all, what good is a shiny, fuel efficient car with a powerful engine, if the inept driver can’t drive it?  Or if the co-drivers, in board and staff leaders, disagree on when to apply brakes or accelerate? Or if the passengers/fuel that are the staff and create the culture, resist change and stall the car?

My partner Kate would counter with, “what good are great drivers and willing passengers, if the car won’t operate, or has no fuel, or, without changes or repairs, is only good for another 100 miles.” It’s not sustainable.

Clearly you need both to operate in a strong and sustainable manner. But after conducting hundreds of strategic plans and organizational assessments, Kate and I both know that great drivers and great cars, who don’t agree on a vision and destination for the organization and thoughtfully map out the best route in a strategic plan, are still vulnerable. Either they will continue to do things the way they always have regardless of changing environments and needs, or, they will meander, stopping here and there as opportunities present themselves but never really winding up at a destination or realizing their value to the community.

Like my car inspection in the opening paragraph, nonprofit owners and drivers often have to make decisions about where to invest $$ in repairs, short term and long term risks/benefits in the repairs, the drivers’ styles and how and where the car will be driven. We now understand that it is the inseparable whole, Leadership and Culture, Business Model, Vision and Strategy that together make for a strong and sustainable organization.
If you work for a nonprofit, or sit on the Board of one, consider these questions which will make for lively discussions:

  • What kind of car is the nonprofit? What is the model, year, color, and condition? Why?
  • Is there a clear and articulate destination in a vision and goals? Have you mapped out the best way to get there (your strategy)? Do you have enough fuel (staff and $$) for the journey?
  • How knowledgeable and competent are the drivers? Are they fighting each other for control? Do they know how to drive your type of car? Do you have a Car Operating Manual in case of an emergency or new driver?
  • Is your engine running smoothly and efficiently? Is it constantly being updated and adapted to deal with a changing environment and needs? Is it good for the long-run?
  • When is the last time you had the car inspected? Have you checked the brakes as well as the accelerator? How will you weigh the risks, the dollars available, and make the necessary repairs?

Leslie Bonner is a partner at BonnerSphar Consulting, she can be reached at 412-427-7033 or at

1 Comment

  1. Rin

    THanks for the article. Question; what to do when organization leadership itself is risk averse to innovation as well as to tried-and-true development strategies and protocols? I love the mission, but feel like jumping ship because tied hands in my new position will ultimately prove detrimental to my career path. Help!