Jim Collins’ book Good to Great is the Sergeant Pepper of management books – it’s popular and influential, for all the right reasons. Collins and his team did an exhaustive study of what factors make high-performing companies tick over extended periods of time. They found a short list of commonalities – all of which were present in “great” companies, a pattern not found in companies that were merely “good,” or worse.

The genius of his 2001 book is that he boiled the concepts down to plain English, so clear that even consultants can understand it. And while these traits were identified for businesses, they’re full applicable to public benefit organizations. It’s as if Collins has lived a day in the life of nonprofits.

Perhaps the most basic G2G concept is the hedgehog. He calls it that because this small, spiny creature has been highly successful across much of the globe for the past 15 million years. Talk about sustainability!  Collins defines an organization’s Hedgehog Concept as the overlap of three circles, representing the company’s (1) passion, (2) unique competency, and (3) economic engine driver. The point is that successful companies ONLY work in the overlap, which I call the Hedgehog Zone.

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A related concept is another common trait of great companies: a robust Do Not Do List (the exact opposite of the more traditional “To Do” list). Successful companies say no a lot, for the purpose of staying in the Hedgehog Zone.  All of this is part of disciplined planning and action, prominent behaviors of the best organizations.

Collins had so much interest in his book from nonprofits, that he released a separate booklet, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, four years later. Here he discusses adapting some of the key concepts to a different competitive environment. The booklet has received mixed reviews, and I personally recommend the original, which is very relevant for nonprofit leaders and managers.

You’d think that a book like this would be trendy, and fade away over time. But G2G is as current as ever – board members and EDs often know this language. The humble, nocturnal hedgehog as never been so famous. We use it in every strategic planning process, and it’s still an effective way to focus the most important discussions.

I’d alter the Hedgehog Concept it in one way for nonprofits, my unsolicited suggestion to Mr. Collins: I’d keep three overlapping circles, but I’d swap out one of them. The first circle, what we’re passionate about, shouldn’t apply – nonprofits exist only because a group of people are passionate about an issue, not to make money for owners or shareholders, so that circle is unnecessary. However, nonprofits have another variable that isn’t so relevant to businesses: essential community needs. Nonprofits have the obligation to act where the needs are.  I’d therefore make the essential mission-related needs the first circle. Circles 2 and 3 are right on target.

So, with that change, nonprofits have three clear filters to focus their work, to get inside their particular Hedgehog Zone. When organizations get out of their Zone, they get into trouble. 

And remember, as Collins points out, the Hedgehog isn’t a headline grabber or celebrity, and doesn’t seek to make everybody happy; she’s merely extremely successful and sustainable. Living in the Zone, and nowhere else, isn’t only good for small mammals, it’s great for the people you serve and your organization. 

Postscript: For a related topic, and a different perspective on how to build your Hedgehog Concept, please see Public Interest Management Group's white paper, Anatomy of the Nonprofit Business Model, a Key Driver of Organizational Performance.