Monday, May 7, 2007

Mission gets in the way of running like a business?

So there is the recurring and ongoing debate of should nonprofits run more like a business. The conversation seems to keep coming around. Then the next debate is all about what about businesses that run more like nonprofits and why does it have to be such narrow definitions or categories for this.

Here are some recent great thoughts and conversations about it:
Information Systems Forum (ISF) - an informal survey

Management Approaches to NPtech on ISF


And finally, one of my new favorites, TechCafeteria, Peter Campbell seems to have common experiences as myself. We will have to meet some day.

But that isnt what I really wanted to talk about. Here is a different thought. As technology staff we tend to have some longing and need for order, efficiency, good process, and we tend to deal with change well (or is that just me?). Those traits seem to line up better with a stereotypical corporate worker.

Now lets look at the other staff at an NPO, is it the same traits? I would think not. Just think, if we approached some of our staff our leadership and said lets try to be more business like. Immediately that sounds in direct contradiction to mission.

Be more businesslike, is saying change who we are. I dont think the discussion should be about being more businesslike. I think we should adopt model practices and concepts that allow us to accomplish our mission but keep the culture and passion that makes us who we are.

I think as tech, management, fiscal or office staff at NPOs we already tend to be more businesslike, that doesnt mean the rest of the org has to follow. We shouldnt force a culture change, we should equip the staff with the best tools, process and practices to do their job. However we should help shift the culture when needed to make the organization more impactful.

Not sure how coherent my thought flow was here, but hope I made my point. If not, I hope someone else can pick up where I left off.


73 comments:

peterscampbell said...

Hey, 1cent -- I think the thing that obscures this conversation the most for me is that the idea of what "running like a business" means has such strong, often negative connotations for everyone. Running like a business, to me, doesn't mean that you sacrifice your organizational culture. It means that you enhance your ability to practice. There are lots of businesses that make cost-cutting decisions at the expense of their clients, and ones that have cultures that don't promote workplace quality. Those aren't the ones that we have as much to learn from.

My push is that non-profits have to step out of the day-to-day assumptions about how we operate - which are reinforced by the expectations of our donors, funders, and, mostly, each other - and evaluate our businesses. Identify the long-term goals that will accomplish our missions. Then, redesign our businesses in the ways that will maximize those outcomes.

But here's a clear example of how "running like a non-profit" can be a sound business decision: It is generally accepted that non-profits don't pay as well as for-profits. And it's also expected that the culture at a non-profit will be less demanding, more casual and friendly. That's a business decision, and one that might well make sense - to say that we are going to trade off some potential productivity for a relaxed culture, and offset the lost revenues with reduced salaries. But the reason for adopting that business strategy should not be simply "because we're a non-profit". It needs to be couched in terms of how it impacts mission delivery. And if your non-profit could be far more effective by paying more and increasing the business pace, then maybe you should. Again, you can have a fast-paced business environment that is also humane and friendly. Look no further than Salesforce.com or Microsoft, two for-profits that are very tied into our community, for examples of how that's done.

I think it's very funny that "this blog does not allow anonymous comments". ;-)

1cent NPTech said...

I love your comments Peter, I will have to reveal my true identity to you and we can share stories.

I changed my blog to allow anonymous comments, that really is funny, an anonymous blog that doesnt allow anonymous comments. Who do I think I am anyway. This is my first blog, didnt even realize it was set that way. Thanks!

"Running like a business, to me, doesn't mean that you sacrifice your organizational culture. It means that you enhance your ability to practice." That is exactly true! What I was trying to say, but dont think I did well was... Stop trying to change the culture to a business one and just utilize the best business practices you can.

I love the example of salary also. I actually make a good wage, I dont complain. The nonprofit (at least the site I am at) is willing to pay for the best staff. But I could still make more in the for profit arena. I just love the work I do. Anyway, I go off topic again.

I tend to carry my train of thought to the extreme or to an edge to spur my own thinking and to get reaction.

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