What “the best nonprofit in the world” sees as key to success


The Global Journalattempts to identify and rank the best nonprofits in the world. This year, they gave top honors to BRAC – a Bangladeshi anti-poverty nonprofit. (Photo courtesy of BRAC, caption below) Over the last few years, BRAC has fundamentally challenged my assumptions about the limits of what is possible from the nonprofit sector.

As they see it, the keys are:

They go big or go home. BRAC is big. It has a $572M budget and has been described as a “minigovernment.” It touches an estimated 135 million people in 11 countries, educates 11% of all Bangladeshi children, and disburses $1B annually in microloans. As founder Fazle Hasan Abed sees it, "If you want to do significant work, you have to be large. Otherwise we'd be tinkering around on the periphery."

They focus on solvable problems. Despite the wide range of activities they undertake, BRAC puts relentless focus on the problems it seeks to address. An example: One of BRAC’s first major undertakings was to train semi-literate women to fan out to villages across the country and teach people how to treat diarrhea, which in 1980 was claiming the lives of roughly 12% of all Bangladeshi children before their fifth birthdays. BRAC’s health workers taught people how to mix a simple solution (a fistful of sugar, a three-finger pinch of salt, and water measured in a local milk container) and based their modest salaries on the number of people who retained the knowledge weeks later. BRAC scaled the program, training thousands of workers who visited 12 million families. By 2005, child deaths from diarrhea had dropped by more than 80% nationwide,and countries around the world were replicating BRAC’s model.

They don’t depend heavily on fundraising. In Bangladesh, you don’t reach this kind of scale on donations. BRAC covers 70-80% of its budget through microlending and social enterprises that link entrepreneurs and create economic opportunity for the poor all the way up the value chain.

They invest in learning. You also don’t reach this kind of scale and impact without an insatiable appetite and capacity for learning. David Korten, author of "When Corporations Rule the World", called BRAC "as near to a pure example of a learning organisation as one is likely to find."

BRAC challenges the nonprofit sector to reimagine what it is capable of by going big, focusing on solvable problems, developing a sustainable funding stream, and investing in learning.

Photo caption: BRAC Dairy collects milk from 40,000 rural farmers in poor regions of Bangladesh, holds the milk in one of 100 chilling stations, and processes 300,000 litres of milk per day in its factory, ensuring the farmers get a good price for a quality product.