Unintentionally Non-profit

June 10, 2007 by
Filed under: Leadership 

I have been recently exploring different ways of contributing to the community where I live, and there have been a couple of times where I have had discussions with people involved in non-profit organizations.

Thus far, I have learned that the people involved in non-profits are passionate about what they do, really want to make a difference, and don’t mind discussing their hopes and fears about what drives them. Their vision is not centered on the almighty dollar, but on genuinely solving people’s problems.

It also appears that most non-profits are also struggling to make ends meet. Being cash-strapped, they are unable to do everything they would like to be able to do. Theirs is generally an exhausting cause, and long hours or a frustrating lack of resources often leads to burnout amongst the support staff. There is no certainty that the funding they do get will continue, and there is always the danger that their project can be shut down at a moment’s notice.

As a larger community of non-profits, there are the additional challenges of competing for the little money to go around, and for the people willing to contribute their time to the various causes. With a competitive viewpoint rather than working together for the greater good, their efforts are often at odds with one another, further contributing to the frustration and burnout.

Except for these groups being consciously and intentionally non-profit, this sounds a lot like the situation in startup software organizations, that are often unintentionally non-profit.

Both the positive and the negative. The passion for their activities, the intent to truly make a difference, and their zeal for spreading the word and solving real problems. Unfortunately, the long hours, frustration and burnout, lack of certainty and competition are part of the mix as well. Oh yeah, the lack of resources too, of course.

That lack of resources, both for non-profits and not-wildly-profitable, appears to be at the root of the problem.

Certainly in an organization flush with resources, it would be easy to allocate the funds or get the people to do all that strategic stuff that the big businesses seem to do so well (or indeed, sometimes seem to do to excess). Separate groups with the required expertise to drive operations, sales and marketing, finances, and all the other divisions that are headed by a CxO of some kind. They are staffed with people trained in their areas, and work to contribute their share to the overall organization’s goals.

Without the resources to build up a huge infrastructure, though, the perception is that every dollar available needs to be put to good use, and that is generally seen as doing the real task at hand. Fingers to keyboards in a small software shop, people helping those in need in a community-based non-profit.

Given the goals and the passion, this is admirable, to be sure. I would bet, though, that most of these groups would dramatically benefit from a little more strategic thinking.

In the non-profit world, there are a large number of organizations, all working to address their vision of how to change the world. These are often different perspectives of a larger overall issue, and there will be times when cleaning up one symptom will make other symptoms more pronounced. With everyone heads-down, there will naturally be collisions and frustration. If we were to step back and understand the overall landscape, both the greater issues to be resolved and all the stakeholders at the table, I would expect that the coordination could improve results dramatically.

Higher level thinking would be valuable for small software startups as well. Success requires far more than a technical idea to be realized, and quite early there needs to be an understanding of how their product plays in the overall landscape of the business world. For some groups, this understanding will suggest that it would make sense to stop now, as there is no foreseeable business benefit for what they are doing (even if it is a great technical idea). For others, insight might suggest there is value in investing heavily to speed the time to market, to take advantage before the window of opportunity closes.

In both cases, it is usually safe to say that objective insight into current operations, regardless of the soundness of the vision, will reveal opportunities to improve efficiencies.

From day one, whether you are building the next big technology solution or working under the non-profit model to make the world a better place, there is tremendous value in acting and behaving like a real business. Start with a clear vision. Obtain a deep understanding of all your stakeholders, their needs and attitudes toward your goals. Build clarity around how you intend to realistically achieve your goals, and an understanding of where you need to shore up your capabilities with support. Maintain an ongoing focus on ensuring that your resources are being used as efficiently as possible.

For non-profits, this can reduce frustration and burnout, and may lead to more synergy with some of your peer organizations. For unintentionally non-profit technology startups, this can mean survival. – JB


One Response to “Unintentionally Non-profit”

  1. Fragmentation « For thinking out loud on May 31st, 2009 9:25 am

    […] I wrote a couple of years ago how I see many small businesses that are run in a similar manner. […]

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