I read an article recently that had me standing up and shouting, “Yes!” over and over and over again.
In his article, “Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses,” author Vu Le notes with delightful snark that if he hears one more keynote speaker admonish the nonprofit sector to “think more like a business,” his eyes might pop out of their sockets.
This idea that nonprofits should be more like businesses works well in many cases … until it doesn’t.
Should we take risks in the nonprofit sector? Should we hire, at a minimum, competent staff, and enough of them while we’re at it? Should we be creating and acting on strategic plans? Should we strive to actually make money?
The answer to each of those questions is a definitive YES.
When was the last time you heard a business leader ponder whether she or he should pay market rate salaries or provide benefits to full-time staff? Have you sat at board meetings where the conversation turned to ways to look like you didn’t make any money this year because of the negative perception from “investors”?
I’d love to meet the CEO who says, “This year, we’re going to play it safe. We’re not going to invest in anything new because it might not pay off. And we certainly can’t think big — there’s danger in thinking big because, what if it doesn’t work?”
Consider the staggering number of startups that receive incredible amounts of funding from investors.
According to Bloomberg, 8 out of 10 startups fail. There are a lot of reasons, but that’s a phenomenal failure rate. And yet the money invested in startups continues to be in the billions.
In the article “Seed funding slows in Silicon Valley,” Stanford University professor and entrepreneur Steve Blank notes, “The reason why startups are disrupting companies in the 21st century is not because they are smarter. It’s because they have capital to do so.”
Having the capital to disrupt the system is the key to everything, for both for-profits and nonprofits.
In the nonprofit world, we are most often working to do more with less, but more with less doesn’t grow anything. It doesn’t spark audacious, transformative, disruptive change. And isn’t that what we in the nonprofit sector are really all about?
We can’t hold nonprofits to business standards but provide none of the resources and allowances that are the key to making business successful. To quote Mr. Le, “You can’t have your nonprofit cake and yet withhold your for-profit icing.”
Do we want to audaciously disrupt and transform critical and creative thinking through arts engagement, homelessness, mental and physical health issues, attraction and retention of employees, the brain drain of rural America, racial and cultural divides and so many other issues?
Or do we simply want to struggle to make ends meet and do the very best we can as our resources dwindle to nothing?
I know what my answer is, and I hope it’s your answer, too.
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and originally appeared in print on Monday, April 23, 2018.