It’s an axiom these days:
Nonprofit organizations should operate ‘more like a business’.
The people/donors/media/policymakers who advise this are seldom very specific about what this corporate approach would really look like for social service agencies.
I mean, it’s not like the for-profit world has a lock on efficiency or ‘good governance’, and certainly many nonprofit organizations can measure their impact on a scale more impressive than most businesses.
I think, too often, this exhortation to ‘run like a business’ is really code for, “we’re uncomfortable with the whole ‘social impact’ thing, and not really sure that we should collectively have a responsibility to [fill in the blank worthy cause], so…can’t you just ‘take care of that yourself’, like a business?”
And my obvious frustration with the ‘wash our hands of this’ approach, aside, this post is about one place where I’ll concede that nonprofits for sure have a lot to learn from the for-profit world:
We need to get much, much more comfortable with failure.
Instead of feeling that every grant report we submit has to be full of unqualified successes and ways in which we exceeded all expectations, we need room to acknowledge that something didn’t work. Maybe we know what we need to do differently next time, or maybe we’re not sure, and we need an investment of some wisdom–and space to grow it–to gain some perspectives so that we can try again.
Instead of feeling that every annual report has to gloss over our struggles in favor of shiny examples of victory, we need opportunities to come together with others, with whom we’re aimed towards the same goals, to figure out how to move beyond the obstacles that thwart us.
We need a research and development approach to evaluation, like that espoused by TCC Group, where we use evaluation to try out innovations, explore how to scale up promising pilots, and construct a framework that helps us to distill the most essential intervention elements, so that we can most efficiently get to the results we’re seeking.
We need support from those critical to our field–those who financially support us, those who volunteer with us, those who sanction our existence–to engage key stakeholders in the “process of “making meaning” from our findings”, so that best practices are really that, we have an honest dialogue about what worked and didn’t, and we can quickly make modifications needed for improvement, instead of letting subpar approaches languish, just because everyone’s too scared, or too polite, or too socialized to own up to our failures.
In the world of big business, the best-selling books are full of reminders that, to succeed on a big scale, you have to fail massively. Few industries face tasks as daunting as those with which nonprofits concern ourselves: preventing child abuse, ending homelessness, reducing child hunger, stopping suicide.
The world needs us to succeed.
And that means that we have to learn to risk failure.
Just like a business.