Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Four Things the For Profit World Could Learn From Nonprofits

In a couple of other posts I mentioned that it's become rather a fad to borrow from the for-profit side of things. I've even recently written a post on what nonprofits could learn from for-profits. When someone recently tweeted this link, a twitter friend-in-common (Shaun Dakin) said he'd like to see it the other way round - what could for-profits learn from NPs? So here's my take on that question.

The way I see it, there are four things small nonprofits do that a for-profit might find very useful:

  • Focus on Mission
  • Relationships
  • Flexibility
  • Teamwork

Focus on Mission

We've all heard about a business wanting to return to its core values. For a small nonprofit, the mission is its core value. Whatever else the NP does, it can't wander too far afield in its search for relevancy. If the mission is to provide kids with backpacks, then that's what it needs to focus on. Any time an NP starts thinking, "maybe we should add some pencils to those backpacks, or maybe we could get calculators," they've taken a step away from their mission. This doesn't mean you should toe the line strictly, but if you're expanding your reach temporarily, you need to be clear about what you're doing and why: you can't afford to have your social media contacts become confused about what is important to you. Confusion about your mission will muddy the waters and your brand - what the public sees you as standing for.


There is at least one cable service provider whose brand is tarnished by horror stories told by customers about the way their problems were resolved (or not). There are even whole websites devoted to nothing but customers venting about a particular company and what it is not doing right. This is not the kind of publicity anyone wants, whether for profit or nonprofit, but some companies seem to think they are too big to care and they don't respond to the Tweets, FB posts, or other social media chastisements.

A small nonprofit must pay attention, must monitor, must respond. While a business may consider social media communications a needless distraction, for an organization whose brand encompasses doing good, there's no substitute for a timely response or outreach on issues related to the mission. Good social communications help make and maintain good relationships. A business could do worse than emulate a nonprofit such as the Humane Society. With better social communications, that cable service provider might find fewer people willing to take a hammer to their cable boxes or satellite dishes. Note: social media response/interaction leads to referrals and endorsements - that's a fact.


In the tech world there's a software product called Agile and it's spawned methodologies like Agile Project Management. The whole idea is to promote a rapid response to change using collaboration and self-defined, cross-functional teams. Companies put millions of dollars into learning something a small nonprofit that wants to thrive already knows - to succeed, you have to be flexible.

Almost everyone in a small nonprofit wears more than one hat, which doesn't happen as often in business, unless it's a start-up. More than one person has to be empowered to deal with changing situations or a crisis could completely stall the whole enterprise. With respect to social communications, a stalled response could cause exponential damage to community perception - damage that can take a long, long time to recover from. An internal structure that anticipates and builds in flexibility will have a much greater chance of preventing social media damage before it starts or at least dealing with it quickly enough to minimize the problem.


I've worked in places - including nonprofits - where the prevailing definition of teamwork was everyone doing what the boss said. Again, because the staff of a small nonprofit must take on many different jobs, teamwork means pitching in to help your colleagues; understanding that helping them win is to support the mission and ensure the whole nonprofit wins. It also means collaborating on strategies, plans for carrying out tasks: each person is an asset with something to contribute and while the final decision may belong to the Executive Director, it doesn't mean that the opinions or experience of other staff are less important or useful.

There's probably plenty more a for-profit could learn from the work of a nonprofit, particularly a small one. If you had the opportunity to tell a business how a nonprofit does it, what tips would you share?


Joanne Fritz said...

Robyn, just wanted to let you know how much I've been enjoying your blog! Plus, today's post totally resonated with me. I think the wearing of many hats in a nonprofit is such an advantage. Too often in the business world people are slotted into tiny niches where they stagnate and get bored. Working in a nonprofit has plenty of drama but also lots of opportunities to learn new skills and to step into leadership roles.

Robyn McIntyre said...

Thanks for dropping by, Joanne. NPs can are indeed a place where you can augment your skill sets and get experience dealing with situations you've never seen before. Plus, as you pointed out in a recent G+ post, some of the nonprofit drama can be channeled into rewarding experiences for both volunteers and staff alike.