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October 16, 2012

What Businesses Can Learn from Nonprofits

October 16, 2012

I spent the better part of ten years working in government, or consulting for government agencies. I was good at my jobs. I received promotions and raises. I was nominated for awards. I had some good friends (still do!) in my coworkers, but something just wasn’t right. It took me nearly a decade to figure out that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong work.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to figure it out. I consider myself to be fairly bright (despite a mounting body of evidence to the contrary), and yet I was lost when it came to this basic self-analysis.

To make matters worse, my lovely wife (we’ll call her Kami, because that’s her name) almost universally comes home feeling like she is in the right organization, and for the most part, doing the right work. Even on her bad days (and she’s had plenty), she is reassured that the organization that she works for is doing good work and she is helping in that work immensely. She is valued, and the product of her labor is to improve the world for others.

What my wife has is almost magical when you consider the alienation that most employees feel from the products of their labor. Widget-makers don’t tend to be passionate about widgets, and it is hard to see how widgets leave a positive impact on the world.

You see, what Kami figured out very early in her adulthood was that she was ONLY going to work somewhere that had a mission, vision and values that matched her own. Someplace that she felt connected to a larger body of difference-makers and a wider ethic that encompassed her passions and hopes.

Kami has a career with a nonprofit. This nonprofit is focused exclusively on environmental issues, both locally and globally. And though she rarely rescues ducks from oil spills or hugs trees in the rainforest (she analyzes data, mostly), she is connected to folks that do. She is surrounded by stories of environmental successes, and she is afforded opportunities to experience nature directly, here and abroad. But wait, there’s more. She also has a boss that encourages her to push the envelope, innovate, take chances and have fun.

There are three factors at work here.

First, nonprofits tend to hire people who are passionate about the missions of the organizations. These employees are rarely attracted to the money. Let’s be honest, nonprofits generally don’t pay as well as the private sector. Instead, the employees are attracted to the work and the people doing it.

Second, nonprofits do a very good job of immersing their employees in the work that the organization does. Human service organizations allow time for volunteering at food banks or homeless shelters. Environmental organizations arrange for nature walks and moving talks from conservationists. The employees feel connected to the work, and thusly to their passions.

Third, nonprofits tend to be more nimble, responsive and collective in their systems and processes. Sure, larger nonprofits sometimes struggle with these things, but even the largest nonprofits tend to encourage free-thinking, input from all levels on major decisions, and they have cultures that make employees feel involved, inspired and appreciated.

Businesses don’t tend to do these things… at least not the old model of business. Part of the problem is that many businesses don’t have a purpose that inspires passion in people. While they may have articulated missions that seem to speak to positive motivations and improving the world, there is no connection to that mission for most employees.

Rarely does private sector work culture immerse employees in meaningful experiences that ignite their passions. The average day for most private sector workers is devoid of any inspiring or empowering experiences. Few companies gather feedback from employees, and if they do, that feedback is largely unheeded. And with only a handful of exceptions, companies don’t tend to focus on the quality of life of their employees, despite a growing body of evidence that concludes that happy employees are more productive employees.

Businesses need to emulate nonprofits in many ways (in my humble opinion). But one thing that business can learn from nonprofits and adopt quickly is to improve hiring practices. Build a business that aspires to more than ROI and profit. Build a business with purpose and vision that inspires others. Hire believers. Convert the talented. Your greatest (production and marketing) asset is your workforce.

The great thing about this philosophy is that it builds on itself, like the proverbial snowball rolling downhill. Inspired and passionate employees attract more of the same. Finding talent becomes a breeze, and turnover decreases as happiness grows. Just as low morale can infect an organization, so can high morale.

I probably should have titled this article something like “why businesses should hire passionate believers,” though that sounds a little bit touchy-feely. But, it cuts to the chase. Having engaged, passionate believers in your business, your culture and your products makes a huge difference in the happiness of your employees… and your bottom line.

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