Non-Profit is Just Another Business Model

Pam Moore Pam Moore is Senior Vice President of Content and Strategy for UBM Connect. She oversees editorial strategy for 9 physician-oriented web sites and 5 print journals.
About Pam Moore (7 Posts)

Brad Slaker, founder of DesignWise, didn’t set out to create a non-profit, he told a crowd at Business4Better. It just turned out to be the best business model. A “volunteer-based business model” meant they could design products for a fraction of the usual cost, so it became feasible to focus on what is usually an under-funded field – pediatrics. “I worked in the medical device industry for 20 years; I never even heard of a pediatric project being initiated,” he reported. Now he works on them all the time.

Designwise PT Rover Push Cart for mobility challenged young adults.

Of course, a volunteer-based business would just be about free labor if the only goal were capital. But Slaker’s real goal is to create products to help kids that otherwise would suffer. He just wants the effort to be self-sustaining.

He thinks about DesignWise as a business. It’s just a business that is valued on more than financial growth.

This theme of mixing business with non-fiscal goals and mixing “doing good” with a business approach colored my whole day at Business4Better today. It’s like there was a massive business-non-profit mind meld unfolding in front of me.

  • The head of CSR at Adobe told me she thinks more non-profits should think like businesses. She meant they should measure their progress against defined goals, be entrepreneurial in reaching out to other businesses, and recognize that they might very well have more in common with the other small and medium businesses around them than other giant not-for-profits. This, based on her own past running a non-profit.
  • On the flip side of the equation, Sara Olsen from SVT Group pointed out in the  “Measuring What Matters” session that businesses typically only measure “a tiny sliver of what we actually value.” Looking exclusively at financial accounting under looks the need to account for other kinds of value. SVP Group, B Corp, and many others offer methodologies to do accounting for things like sustainability and environmental impact.

If businesses are measuring success complexly and non-profits are seeing themselves like businesses, the distinctions between them become increasingly meaningless.

The PT Rover, a mobility device for teens from Design Wise.
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3 thoughts on “Non-Profit is Just Another Business Model

  1. Ultimately, we are all consumers – whether we are consuming breakfast cereal, luxury cars, or the opportunity to make a difference in the world. I moved into the nonprofit sector 15 years ago with a skill set developed in the very much for profit world of advertising, and it has served me, and the nonprofits I have worked for, very well. The basic structure of a strategic campaign hasn’t really changed all that much – define your objectives, understand your target audience, uncover and embrace your unique point of difference, create a compelling campaign to express it, get it in front our your target audience as many times and in as many different places as you can afford, measure your results, and adjust accordingly. The marketplace of social change is just as competitive as any other – and nonprofits who get this and adjust their approach accordingly will be more successful in achieving their missions, and helping their consumer realize their potential for doing good.

  2. I would offer that the discussion should be more on how to adopt for-profit business practices more intentionally into non-profit work, rather than focus on non-profit structures as a type of business model. I concur with Ms. Warren’s comments above. Her path to the non profit world mirrors mine, except my for profit experience was in the retail and real estate industries. I too found incorporating basic business principles (as Ms. Warren describes) made a tremendous difference in the efficacy and efficiency of programs, while creating opportunity for advancement for employees and vastly improving employee productivity as well as job satisfaction. I was able to triple staffing with increased funding, which was the result of having a consistent messaging campaign and being able to report data that showed how the work we did resulted in meeting goals as well as report on client satisfaction with our services. It’s astonishing that more non-profits do not use operations and marketing techniques, common in the business world, to address challenges and promote growth of non profit programs.

  3. Why do you think more not-for-profits don’t use standard business practices? Simple lack of experience and training or a belief that they are not relevant?

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