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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What Business Can Learn from Non-Profits

Many of us in the business world consider that we can bring our commercial experience to non-profits and help them out. I know there are opportunities to do this, but we should not overlook the opportunity for the lessons we in the business world can learn from non-profits.

I just had the pleasure of attending a speech delivered this lunchtime at the National Press Club by Gail McGovern, President and CEO of the American Red Cross (ARC). I was attending as a member of the Corporate Advisory Council of the ARC. Gail came to the American Red Cross a year ago after a corporate career in AT&T and Fidelity, and I am sure brought with her the benefits of her corporate experience. But in her remarks, she certainly highlighted what companies can learn from the non-profit world.

The speech was titled “Navigating a Nonprofit through Turbulent Economic Waters". Gail suggested 5 ways to help navigate in our current times.

1) Have a monomaniacal focus on your mission and on the people you serve
2) Be even better stewards of your donors’ dollars
3) Find new ways to raise money and engage donors
4) Embrace new tools
5) Keep looking to the horizon

Exchange donors and ‘people you serve’ for shareholders and customers and I see no reason why these principles don’t apply just as well to for-profit as to not for profit ventures.

But in my view, the most insightful observation on this topic came in the Q&A. In response to a question on the topic of what companies can learn from non-profits Gail talked about ‘heart’. She described that people who work for non-profits do so because of the mission. Every institution has a higher purpose, Gail said, though for-profits might need to work a bit harder to seek and articulate that purpose, but they should do it and they should make sure their employees know what it is, to help them act with heart.

I think ‘heart’ and ‘mission’ gets to the root of why many of us in the CR field and the many employees of the companies we work in want to be involved with, and volunteer for, charities. Without diluting the focus on volunteering for charities, emphasizing the heart in our day jobs is a valuable learning point from the non-profit world to the for-profit world. The corporate responsibility practitioner has a role to play in that.

It is not posted at the time of writing, but a video of the speech is going to be available here on CSPAN and the transcript will apparently be made available from the archives of the National Press Club.

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