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What Nonprofits Just Don’t Get

April 8, 2010

Photo credit: Mark Kelly. Creative Commons copyright via Flickr.

Uh-oh. I hope I’m not going to get in trouble with this post.

The truth is, I’ve noticed a few reoccurring themes about nonprofits through the course of my career. Some of them are truly inspiring. Some of the themes are quite frustrating.

So I offer the following observances about nonprofit culture not as an indictment about this extremely important and absolutely vital sector of our economy. Rather, they are suggestions for a starting point about how focused strategy and effective management can help nonprofits achieve their purpose quicker and more cost-effectively.


Let’s be honest, SOME nonprofits have a sense of entitlement.

I remember being at a cocktail party a year ago, to the day in fact, when this came up. A development professional at a nonprofit expressed her frustration that for-profit companies weren’t financially supporting her arts organization. “I mean, they take from our community all the time,” she said. “They should be giving back to us just because… well, just because they should.”

I’m paraphrasing a bit – but the point still holds. Companies do not have to give to anyone. Do I believe they should? I guess, sure. I think if companies do give, they should be strategic about it to make sure they are getting the results they want with their money.

Most companies, however, are not predators. So they’re not exactly taking, but rather supporting your community by providing the very things any community needs: jobs.

Rather than expecting companies will support you just because, you should find ways to explain your value to them. This can be manifested as a new way for them to engage their employees, meaningful volunteer events, brand exposure to clients, Board of Directors positions for developing leaders, etc.

But the idea that sponsors will support your organization just because it exists is divorced from reality.


Some nonprofits don’t understand the value they bring. Or, if they do, they don’t charge as if they do.

Don’t sell yourself short.

Take an honest evaluation of the services you provide, the value of your brand, the value of exposure your sponsors will receive, and charge accordingly. You can always offer a discount if your sponsors balk, but it’s impossible to do the opposite.

In the words of a CEO I once worked for: “The customer is always willing to pay more than you think.”


I know what it is like working for nonprofits and for profit companies – and this observation is definitely applicable to both business models.

The work flow, for the most part, comes in fits and rages.  The intensity of your work seems to come with the latest demand of an event, a donor, a project, etc. To some extent, this can’t be avoided. Stress will always be slightly higher prior to a major dinner event, as an example.

However, there is an awful lot of waste in staff time by not having a full-fledged strategy developed and understood throughout the organization. Too often, employees attach themselves to the mission of the organization and the leadership forgets to explain how the organization will tactically achieve its mission. This works fine, as we’re all professionals and can feel our way through everything (right?). But the truly successful organizations (again, both for-profit and nonprofit) have a stated mission coupled with a clear vision and direction on how to execute that vision.

So there you have it, a few nuggets of information about how nonprofits can improve their operations and business culture to achieve higher fundraising success, control costs better, and approach operations in a more purposeful manner. If only it were that easy.


The author is the president of Do Well Do Good – a CSR & philanthropy consulting firm based in Chicago. (c) 2010.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2010 5:46 am

    Great post James.

    I completely agree with your experiences. In an ideal world non-profits can benefit from being more private sector like and the for profits could definitely benefit from being more non-profitable in their thinking!

    The answer is in building more productive deeper partnerships between the two worlds to share knowledge and appropriately exploit each others strengths. It’s not rocket science but far too often overlooked!


    • April 21, 2010 9:37 pm

      Partnerships between private sector and social sector are crucial. As a case in point, I work with an npo that just celebrated their 75th year of service and if it was not for the business partnership they established over a decade ago, most would agree that they would probably not be where they are today; if exist at all.

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