Nonprofits hear the “be more like a business” refrain a lot, despite plenty of evidence that being like a business isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
I’m persuaded by Jim Collins’ analysis, which more or less argues that within the business community you’ll find the entire spectrum, from extremely effective organizations to highly dysfunctional ones, and the issue is ferreting out the practices that make the good ones good. He extends this to the social sector, and essentially makes the same argument: the challenge isn’t for social sector organizations to be like businesses but to adopt the practices of the really well run businesses, as well as the really well organizations from whatever sector. I don’t think he’s ever evaluated the public sector, but I suspect his argument would be the same . . . learn what we can from the practices of the organizations that really kick ass (and I’ll bet there’s more of this than you might think, but that’s a post for another day).
In other words, conversations that focus on how the nonprofit sector can be more like the business sector are asking the wrong question. A better question: how can nonprofits learn from the best practices of highly impactful organizations within their own sector and across the business and public sectors?
Our frequent insistence on asking the wrong question leads to two kinds of problems. On the other hand, the nonprofit sector is often so allergic to the very idea of the business sector that it runs away from it, and eschews anything that smells like it might have come from the business world (the “we don’t do things that way” reaction). The problem is that there are a bunch of practices you find among the best-run private sector organizations that nonprofits would benefit from using. It’s not “be like a business,” but “adopt the applicable practices of the best businesses.” The most successful of the private sector organizations are often strong at things nonprofits are often weak at: capacity investments, staff cultivation, and staff management among them.
And then there are nonprofits that run in the other direction, thinking that salvation lies in being like a business, and they adopt private sector practices in seemingly wholesale and indiscriminate fashion, which often produces some of the weirdest and worst dysfunctions, since it involves the hybridization of worst practices from both the nonprofit and private sectors.
Nonprofits really are, at root, businesses. They are different in some important ways from traditional profit-oriented businesses, but they are similar in many more ways. Nonprofits live and die on cash flow, for example, and they have to offer a sufficient and appropriate value proposition to their supporters. But the implication isn’t “do whatever private sector businesses do,” since that would be dumb, but rather that the laws of business physics really do apply even if you are serving a social good of some kind. The sense of nonprofit exceptionalism that pervades much of the nonprofit world, the notion that we are special and different because we are a nonprofit, is harmfully misguided. If you apply a discriminating eye toward the private sector, however strong your allergy may be, you’ll find a ton of practices and accumulated wisdom that will help your nonprofit do good, better.