“If only not-for-profit organizations were run like for-profitcompanies …”, so goes the common refrain. From my experience, it’s the other way around. For-profit companies have much to learn from the nonprofit sector.  This is the topic that Nancy Lublin, nonprofit leader and social marketing consultant to Feature-96-Zilch-5   corporations, addresses in an article she wrote for Fast Company Magazine that is adapted from her new book, Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business. She writes:

Everyone loves to talk about how not-for-profits need to behave more like businesses. But after watching giant for-profit companies pull out the begging bowl, I know there are also plenty of lessons my sector can offer.

BP, GM, Chrysler, Lehman Brothers, AIG – the list goes on and on. All are companies that could have benefited from following the practices of well-run nonprofits. Business tends to rely on money to solve problems and achieve goals. Nonprofits have to do it without money. They don’t have any. As Lublin says, they have “zilch”.  The best nonprofits develop ways to attract and use donor and grant money to achieve their goals. They do this, in part, by communicating a compelling message, by telling the captivating history of their organizations, and by making the “ask” very specific, e.g., your donation of this amount will change things for this person in this way. They also “say thanks” by telling customers and donors over and over in different ways that the nonprofit cares about them. And they hire people who have passion for the cause, not necessarily people who are long on experience, instilling in them a commitment to an ideal. These are all things that would make businesses more successful.

Alice Korngold, writing about Lublin’s book for a Fast Company blog, puts it this way:

Think about how the employees of BP feel: Ashamed? Angry? Defensive? On the other hand, if BP had had a plan that was respectful of the environment and oriented to risk-management, conservation, preservation, and transparency, this would have been a company that its employees and investors could be proud of.

Instead, many companies, like BP, employ managers who are driven by the size of their budgets. The company culture encourages this misdirection of purpose, i.e., they are rewarded and recognized for having funds to do their projects. The question Lublin says managers should be asking themselves is how can we achieve our goals without spending money? What would we have to do get employee, customer, and partner support for achieving our goals? How would we have to act as a company to develop the employee and customer passion and commitment to purpose that is typical of the best nonprofits?

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