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How to Break Bad Habits at Your Nonprofit


By Allison Gauss

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Routine is both a friend and enemy. It allows us to go through the countless tasks of the day without having to stop and think about each and every one of them. When we can do some things on autopilot, it frees our brain to plan and think through other ideas. The problem is that we sometimes adopt a routine or habit that isn’t helpful, or at least isn’t the most efficient or effective.

In The Power of Habit, journalist and Harvard Business School graduate Charles Duhigg explains how our habits and routines—at work and at home—shape our lives. He also shows how we can change them for the better.

Social impact organizations, where resources of all kinds are scarce, can’t afford to continue with ineffective or inefficient practices. The habits and routines your team use every day ultimately impact your ability to achieve your mission. Learn how to identify poor habits, investigate what drives them, and break out of routines that waste time and money.

What’s the Problem?

In the prologue to The Power of Habit, Duhigg defines habits as “the choices that all of us deliberately make at some point, and then stop thinking about but continue doing, often every day.”

We all have them. For some of us, it’s turning on the coffee machine as soon as we get out of bed. Or maybe it’s checking your social media channels on your phone whenever you’re waiting for someone. There was a time when we made the conscious choice to do these things, but the longer we do it, the more natural, the more unexamined, the acts become.

Do you talk about the same things every time you have your weekly team meeting? In the beginning, your team decided to discuss these topics in this meeting. But it’s easy to keep doing what you’ve been doing, even when it’s not productive or helpful anymore. “Researchers have found institutional habits in almost every organization or company they’ve scrutinized,” says Duhigg. And nonprofit organizations, risk-averse and slow to change, are no different.

The key to making the most of your organization’s time and resources is identifying what practices and habits are not contributing to the pursuit of your mission. As you go through your work week, start asking yourself, “Is this task bringing us closer to achieving our mission? Is it the most efficient way to do so?”

Here are some other helpful questions to identify routines, habits, and practices that need changing.

  • What tasks do you dread because they take up too much time or seem pointless?
  • What tasks do you look forward to? Is it because they are effective or because they are easy?
  • Where do operational changes get stuck in the chain of command?
  • How many people NEED to be consulted on this issue?

Some common routines or habits that prevent nonprofits from operating more efficiently and effectively are…

  • The need for many levels of approval on changes. If a programs associate suggests a better way to implement a program, how long will it take to happen? Does the programs director have the authority to say “yes?” Or must any change also go through the executive director and board?
  • The desire for consensus on all initiatives. If you’re a one-person operation, this won’t be a problem, but the larger your team, the less likely you are to all agree on every initiative.
  • The use of ineffective tools, both online and off. Do you use your donor database because it’s the best one for your organization, or just because it’s what you’ve always used?

Once you’ve identified the bad habits and routines that you and your team have been perpetuating, you can start to make change.

Make a Plan

It’s not enough to say, “we’re not going to do this anymore.” As Duhigg explains in The Power of Habit, “We know that a habit cannot be eradicated—it must, instead, be replaced.” Particularly in your workplace, these routines and habits serve some purpose (or at least they were intended to). In all likelihood, these practices have continued because they seem like a solution. Not the best solution, but the one you have right now.

When you inspect ineffective habits, be they in your board member selection process, your donor engagement strategy, or your payroll system, you must follow up with the question, “How can we do this better?”

Depending on the scope of the problem, you may be able to identify and enact a new path yourself, or you may need to consult others and get them on board. Don’t forget that consensus isn’t always necessary. In fact, the solution to your organization’s inefficiency might be to identify who has the power to make decisions. If your programs director is empowered to implement small or moderate operational changes, you can avoid several meetings, votes, email exchanges, and frustrations.

The best way to truly change an ineffective practice is to clearly define and document your new approach. Make sure everyone involved knows about the changes. Create weekly or monthly check-ins to ensure the new practice is being implemented. You can even choose a reward at the end of the month or quarter if you and your team succeed. The first step to kicking a wasteful habit or ineffective routine is committing to tackle the problem.


When you eveluate your nonprofit’s practices, it ensures that your team and organization keeps improving and striving toward your mission. When you’re willing to optimize your day-to-day habits, it can make a big difference in the progress you make toward your mission. Improving your organization accelerates your impact, so take the time to kick any bad habits holding you back.

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