Social Innovation Trend Canvas

What businesses can learn from non-profits

We’ve had the privilege of working with many non-profits, applying business principles to various non-profit workstreams. For instance, non-profit agencies such as the World Food Programme or WaterAid transporting food and water to rural regions, routinely benefit from the supply chain technologies and practices of the major logistics firms in the world.

Disaster relief agencies such as Red Cross or Mercy Relief practice principles such as triage from the medical sector or and the 80/20 rule when working in time- and mission-critical interventions. Similarly business analyses of market sizes, ‘donation channels’, ‘philanthropist intelligence’, and even ‘competitive analysis’ have helped organisations like UNICEF and WorldVision create greater impact in their marketing and fundraising.

Not-for-profit agencies are frequently viewed as inefficient due to the lack of a profit motive. However, inefficiency is a problem that many for-profits suffer from as well. In fact, many non-profits – think universities, museums, and top hospitals – wield budgets and endowment funds that are much larger than their for-profit counterparts that operate at a loss. Perhaps, with the way corporations are also suffering from high staff attrition, cost mismanagement, and an inability to deliver on their promise, there are some learnings that the corporate world can take away from non-profits too.

Non-profits are firstly a magnet for talent. They are unparalled in articulating missions that inspire people to join them, develop them by delegating substantial responsibility early in their careers, and retain them to dedicate their entire lifetimes working towards the same cause. Many non-profit leaders are expert at motivating team members and volunteers, perhaps using titles rather than large pay packets or bonuses. Non-profits such as Habitat for Humanity or Kiva rely on innovative business models to fulfil their mission at minimal costs. Several non-profits we’ve worked with have shown to be adept at delivering their programmes at a surprising pace that would make six-sigma touting corporations blush. They have shown to manage regulatory hurdles well, maintain longstanding relationships with donors, and to sustain change in adverse operating conditions. The rising global trend of social awareness has shown recently that non-profits have been able to learn fast and bring creative campaigns and mutually-beneficial partnerships to market that truly touch customers emotionally.

If these successes sound interesting to you, which of these practices can you best import into your corporation?