Is your nonprofit mission-frenzied or market-driven?

It’s no secret there is a noticeable drift of for-profit professionals turning in their Blackberries and travel loyalty cards for the less frenetic pace and soul-filling way of life working for a nonprofit. Bridgers, as they are sometimes called, are professionals from the marketplace bringing unique sets of talents, treasures, skills, perspectives and practices that work to increase productivity, effectiveness and efficiencies; all while improving the delivery of services of nonprofits—tangible and intangible—to their customers or clients. While increasing these outputs is intuitive to the for-profit and nonprofit professions, it’s approached by each in very different ways.

Steve Rothschild was one of those bridgers and brought his years of experience at General Mills and Yoplait to found Twin Cities Rise! in 1994. The culmination of his for-profit and nonprofit experiences led to the creation of his seven principles outlined in his book, The NON Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success. I, too, made the switch. I had a long career working in marketing and public relations for a variety of high-profile firms in the fashion, entertainment and higher education industries. As a fellow bridger currently working with identity-based affinity groups, it’s easy for me to connect with Rothschild’s principles in theory; however, these seemingly oversimplified principles can be perceived by those who have never worked in the for-profit world as pithy and disingenuous. Even for those who find the value in these principles, adopting and implementing them is a far more greater challenge. In reviewing Rothschild’s principles, I offer a critique and a recommendation.

The Critique

As Steve Rothschild points out, the “customer-focused” approach, typically seen as the focal point of for-profit models, puts the client at the center of the work and the mission (and most often the grant proposal supporting the program being delivered). Rothschild requires a nonprofit to determine who its customer is—but this is not always as clear to identify for a nonprofit organization as it would be for a for-profit firm. Having made the transition from the for-profit to nonprofit world, I learned the complexities of this challenge firsthand.

While nonprofits want with every fiber of their being to serve the customers (the folks who actually use their services, members, etc.), they can find themselves serving many masters such as donors, funders, board members, and often times the most complicated customer of all, the ever-loved founder. Consequently, what a nonprofit thinks of as its market and what the market really is may not be in alignment. This inadvertent perplexity can cause a very complicated bout of, what I like to call, mission-schizophrenia. In the race for delivering services, building sustainability, pleasing donors, aligning programs with the philanthropic funding du jour (of the day), and satisfying staunch ideal-firm founders, it’s easy to steadily creep away from one’s mission. The result may lead to diminishing the value nonprofit programs bring to the market or the programs may actually become obsolete. In the for-profit world, identifying who the customer is and putting the customer first is far more clear-cut: How does/will our decisions affect our customer or does this decision align with what we have promised to deliver? If the answer is “no,” then there is no room for debate—you learn (Rothschild’s Principle #7: Be Learning Driven), process and implement changes as needed for the organization. This leads me to my recommendation.

The Recommendation

While Rothschild’s Principle #7 highlights that nonprofits be learning driven, I would say this is not enough. I have been part of a number of learning-driven organizations in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds. I find, particularly in nonprofits, that being learning-driven isn’t the problem—especially as it relates to being market-driven. The challenge is more in the flexibility to respond to the learnings obtained from customers, stakeholders, etc. This inflexibility can be due to a number of reasons, including the most elemental: lack of will to be flexible.

So what can organizations do to get started in becoming market-driven? Applying any or all of Rothschild’s principles can be daunting, overwhelming and even downright frustrating. Staff and resources are limited and are seemingly becoming more and more scarce. Nonprofit staffs are typically small (1-10 people) and are often multitasking to the hilt. In a recent CausePlanet interview with Rothschild, when asked which of his principles a small nonprofit should focus on first, Rothschild suggests that while they are all important, Principle #3, Be Market Driven, is a good place to start. I would agree and would suggest the process begin with an open, frank conversation with your board, staff and founder (if applicable) to discuss where and how the organization may be falling short. It’s always good to come to this conversation with comments from your customers and staff regarding how they view you. This way the conversation begins from a customer-driven perspective versus what could be perceived as your own personal opinions.

Regardless if your organization adopts Rothschild’s seven principles or some other success model, my humble suggestion is be patient and flexible throughout the process. Remind yourself and your staff to be patient and flexible. Adopting these (or any) principles demands a paradigm shift—a different way of thinking—sometimes big and sometimes small in how your organization functions. This is no different than the shift one makes when looking at one of those pictures with a hidden image. It can be confusing and sometimes frustrating but if you stick with it, you’ll see the full picture and be glad you did.

See also:

The Page to Practice™ summary of Steve Rothschild’s book, The NON Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success

Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits

Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World

The End of Fundraising: Raise More Money by Selling your Impact

Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability

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