Aug 08 2017

You Can’t Treat Your Non-Profit Like a Business

If you treat your social enterprise like a business, don’t be surprised when it fails to thrive. Why can’t proven for-profit practices produce promised results in non-profits?

You’re trying to save the world or your little piece of it. The needs are always greater than the resources you have to meet them. The hours are long, and the timelines are short.

When you’re just getting by, it’s easy to lose sight of a higher order reality: the powerful social exchange at the heart of your work. This isn’t about the great work you’re doing for the clients you serve, but about what you’re not doing for the stakeholders who support you—volunteers, trustees, donors, employees, and partners.

Of course, you don’t intend this. You don’t intend to forget why people get involved with your organization in the first place…or overlook what they need from you on a personal level…or fail to spend your time and deploy your team in ways that engage the people you rely on as they wish to be engaged.

But it happens anyway. Talented, well-intentioned leaders, under pressure to pay greater attention to the bottom line or to make their organizations stand out in a crowded field or to secure the next big grant lose focus on the double duties of their job: create real income for their organizations and generate emotional capital among those who ensure its success. This is where private sector practices, and the bottom line priority they engender, fall short.

Yes, your stakeholders care about outcomes. But chances are they had a less tangible and visceral motivation for associating with your cause—a mother or sister diagnosed with breast cancer, a family member stopped and frisked without cause, or a beloved landscape threatened with extinction. As leaders, we forget this at our peril.

We get involved with a cause just like we get involved with another person—in a relationship that is more emotional than intellectual. We need to keep this reality front and center in leading the social enterprise. See: The Quiet Challenge of Social Sector Leadership: Creating Psychic Income, Part 1.