Saturday, August 4, 2007

"Battle for the non-profit soul"

I have worked in the non-profit field for more than 25 years, and my father began working for an international non-profit in 1968 - so I've seen a lot of change in that field. One of my colleagues talks about the "battle for the soul of non-profits" now taking place as business people have begun to play bigger and bigger roles in non-profit governance and management.

As baby boomers grew into their 40s and 50s, many started to seek meaning in their work lives and turned to the non-profit sector - a place where they could "make a difference." Unfortunately, many brought an arrogance along with their skills, thinking that they were superior to people working in the non-profit field simply because they'd worked in the for-profit sector.

After a bit, I found that a lot of them left the non-profit sector because they couldn't deal with the challenges of raising money and then performing very difficult work with limited resources. Some were generous enough to say that they'd learned how to do more with less at the non-profit. I think the roots of the social entrepreneurship movement were born when people realized that they wanted to do good and make money at the same time. The for-profit people who remained active in non-profits brought their skills and abilities, as well as - more's the pity - their profit motivation.

Certainly, there's room for improvement in the non-profit sector, and I know many, many non-profit leaders who have sought to improve their management and leadership skills. Peter Drucker brought enormous resources and knowledge to the non-profit sector - and was a clock-builder who left a powerful legacy in the Drucker Institute and various periodicals and trained successors. What he never did, though, was belittle the non-profit leaders already working in the field. He had some respect. And he also respected the fact that the non-profit is about putting people first - that the bottom line is about who and how you've helped.

The newer Board members and migrants from the for-profit sector seem to have an attitude that it's the numbers that count, the impact you can measure, the dollars you raise, the way you invest your cash, balance sheets, etc. All of those are valuable tools, yes. But they do not get someone to volunteer time to teach a child to read. A balance sheet can reassure a donor that their dollars will be spent wisely. But the balance sheet does not get the person to open their wallet. The mission does. The heart does. The face of the child who is eating an apple for the first time is what gets someone to give.

I'm very sad about what's happening in the field. There's a generosity of spirit, a sense that we are part of a larger community, that's being lost in the pursuit of getting non-profits to "run more like businesses."

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