Thoughts on Nonprofit growth, management and culture
On the ride home last night from my Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership Class, I was talking to my classmate about the difficulties of creating a comfortable workplace environment. Both of us had worked with organizations who’s good works externally did not match internal working conditions.
Nonprofit organizations walk a difficult line. Businesses have an easily measured metric of success. Nonprofits on the other hand have a broader basket of mission, vision, values and promises; these are often enough matched with the weak verb “interpret”. In trying to change society for the better, or just provide stop-gap services for an imperfect society, it can often be difficult to know where you draw the between internal and external priorities.
Can you create an organization that fully engenders your vision and values while, at the same time, effectively and efficiently achieve its mission? It’s difficult to say. As nonprofit organizations are increasingly pressed to adopt business-style methodologies (“Social Entrepreneurialism”), I’m placed with conflicting emotions. I do not believe that growth and impact (impact being the social version of profit) are the only ways to create change; yet I am aware that these methodologies can quickly and efficiently affect broad-reaching change. But are these business-style values able to adequately create dialogue and engender engagement with a broad diversity of people and viewpoints? Will they ultimately create the world we want, and if so, does the ends justify the means?
One of the issues is people (well, all issues are people, but that’s out of scope of these thoughts). Many of the people who want to work within the nonprofit sector have strongly articulated values and vision for the world they would like to live in. In my own experience, I would broadly put the majority of these within the box of Liberal Democratic principles: meritocracies embracing diversity, collaborative decision making, and inclusive participation. Unfortunately, these ideals can be at loggerheads with the management that is required of business-style growth and impact: strict hierarchies, delineated responsibilities and externally-legitimated authority. I know many groups—collectives, cooperatives and adhocracies—that are successful; but for the most part they are small, or only act upon narrow missions (for example, planning an annual conference). I also know of organizations who by growing lost aspects of a communal culture which they highly valued.
Such are the difficulties of trying to create cross-sector models of success. Our model on the for-profit side seem to be the large, publicly traded corporations: Google, Microsoft, GE. Businesses with professional managers—and for whom much of our current management training, philosophy and literature is geared towards. And yet the business world is so much richer than that. The privately owned, mom-and-pop store on Main Street (to borrow the common invocation of our last national election) has values closer to my own: local ownership, community values, emphasis on quality and relationships rather than profits, and not necessarily striving to be greater than they are right now—only better.