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Four Things I’ve Learned About Nonprofits From My For-Profit Job

I’ve spent a good portion of past two weeks absorbing new information as much as any human can without spitting it out her pores. My new job has been fun, rewarding, and overwhelmingly illuminating. And while I’ve kept careful detail of all the technology-related information I’ll need to know in order to do my job as well as I can, a deeper part of me has also been making note of what I’ve found in this job that I haven’t found in my previous work with nonprofits. This is not an insult to any of the nonprofits for which I’ve had the pleasure of working; but it is eye-opening. I promised I’d continue to apply the lessons from my new job to the process of starting a nonprofit.

So here, then, are my first (but not last) lessons. The top five for-profit tactics I’ve learned that every nonprofit should emanate:

1. Value (and reward!) your employees, with both feedback and criticism. 

My boss is a busy guy, so he doesn’t check in with me more than is necessary, and he trusts me to operate independently, just as any nonprofit would. But he also gives me positive feedback. When he tells me I’m doing a great job, I believe him. Why is this? Because he reviews almost every assignment I send him. I know this sounds unfeasible for most CEOs or nonprofit managers; but especially in the “ramp up” or “learning” phase, it is critical. I feel respected, I feel aware of where my strengths and weaknesses are; and moreover, I feel held accountable. I want to do a great job because it gives me a jolt of adrenaline whenever my boss tells me I am doing so. And if you think that’s silly, well, you’ve clearly never been praised by a teacher.

Nonprofit managers are notoriously strained for time. I understand this more than anybody, and I also sympathize. But it takes 30 seconds a day to let your employees know they’re doing a great job. It takes five minutes more to review a small portion of their work and let them know if they’re on the right track. Schedule this time into your calendar and don’t ignore it when the reminder crops up: it could just make the difference between an employee who works her heart out, and an employee who is convinced she is creating echoes into a void.

2. Focus on results.

Every nonprofit is aware of what they’re looking for on a high level; otherwise, they wouldn’t have a working mission statement. The difference is, for-profit companies pretty much literally live or die on their results. Results are so much easier for profit-driven companies, as I’ve previously noted. But that doesn’t mean for-profits don’t have a game plan. It’s there, and it’s impacting their results, and they measure it. And when it doesn’t work, they get rid of it: even if it’s an employee or initiative they love. Please take this with a grain of salt, because nobody is heartless, least of all nonprofits. But at some point rationality must prevail, and if that 5k you organized just isn’t raising you money, even though the handful of people who run it love it, it’s time to cut the program and begin a new thought process.

3. Sell, sell, sell.

Here’s the point at which I feel like people are going to begin taking issue with my opinions (please leave comments if you do!) The entire point of a nonprofit is that you are harnessing yourself to a goal that isn’t sales-driven, a purpose that exists for the sole purpose of making a select group’s world a much, much more livable place.

In the nonprofit world, my strengths used to lie predominantly in the “grantwriting” aspect. I absolutely loved creating complex, emotion- and fact-driven images that illustrated why were were doing what we were doing, how it worked, and what we needed in order to be even more successful.

There are no grantwriters in the for-profit world. The expository beauty of the what, when, how and why falls to the marketing specialist (that’s what I do now). However, there’s this other critical branch of the for-profit industry: the salespeople. Bear with me here, because I understand your reservations about sales. But the fact is, these people are active, they are dynamic, they are personable, and they are out every single day with people who may be interested in their product or service. They are building relationships and they are addressing needs as they happen.

Grantwriters simply don’t have the capacity to do this. But does your nonprofit have salespeople? Does your nonprofit have people who are on their feet, addressing donors, telling them why their money should be directed through various channels, telling those donors what they can expect in return? Not always. And given the amount of business my current company’s salespeople secure, I’d say assigning someone to get out there–not just write grants–is a huge priority.

4. Don’t expand before you are ready to.  

This difficulty is paramount for both nonprofit and for-profit leaders. Both types of leaders have an endless stream of ideas, and it’s entirely possible that each new idea is as great as the last. Nonetheless, the for-profit company I work for has an explicit purpose. It is growing exponentially; but only to address that initial, primary purpose. It is not embarking on new initiatives, not now, and maybe not ever.

Were I currently running the Great Exchange full-time, I know this would be an immense challenge for me. As much as it seems like the world is tapped out on ideas, almost every person I have met has come up with a new one. I certainly have. But to work the new idea into the fold of your old ideas before they have even taken root? Well, here’s the analogy that’s coming to mind: it’s like planting seeds, only to suffocate them with more seeds before the first ones can grow and flourish. It simply can’t be done.

For some strange reason, my current for-profit knows this better than my prior nonprofits, and I think it’s because their income base–and therefore their results–are so focused. Expansion is great. Focus is greater.

And here’s a bonus, just for the nonprofits:

5. Create a profit whenever (and wherever) you can.

This is so important. Do not rely on grants and donations. Do not rely on grants and donations. Do not rely on grants and donations. There are plenty of intelligent, articulate, heartfelt people who will be able to tell you why some nonprofits should only rely on grants and donations, and I suggest you research Kjerstin Erickson, founder of FORGE, who wrote one of the most compelling arguments about this that I’ve read in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  Kjerstin’s main point is that, given the population she works with, expecting a profit would be an unnecessary burden.

However, most nonprofits can come up with an earned income strategy that would work with their mission seamlessly. For example, my ultimate goal for The Great Exchange is that they start a business that emulates SCRAP in Portland, an organization that inspires creativity while recycling discarded products from around the Portland Metro Area. My other two inspirations, unlike SCRAP, are both disability-related: Full Life Coffeehouse, a coffeeshop that employs exceptional people with disabilities; and PHAME Academy, a performance-based nonprofit that teaches theater to developmentally disabled adults, sells tickets, and then generates the most inspirational, heartfelt performances an audience could ever hope to watch.

At the heart of these organizations lies a practical need to procure an income–by selling art supplies, coffee, or tickets–and therefore funding. Will this profit fully fund the organization? In some cases, yes, and in many cases, no. But it displays innovation and self-sufficiency. And this, combined with grants, donations, and “sales people,” will make the difference in your nonprofit success.

So there you have it, the lessons from my two-week point with my for-profit company. Please leave any questions or criticisms. More later; I promise!


2 responses »

  1. As always, you are spot on. I am taking these suggestions to hear. (Number 5? We’re already in the process of that, so I feel very smart on the Meg-O-Meter!)


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