In 1989, Peter Drucker, ‘the father of management thinking’, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review on what businesses can learn from non-profits. Three key insights were:

  • Non-profits are mission-driven, not money-driven. Although 30 years after Drucker’s article, most businesses probably have mission-statements, it is one thing having these words decorate your office walls, and another having them actually guide top-level decision-making as well as individual employees’ daily work. It is one thing, putting financial impact first and then creating a story to fit the mission, and another to put the mission first, and then seeing which of the suitable actions also have a positive financial impact. On the contrary, for non-profits, their mission really is at the core of what they do, it takes centre stage when deciding between different courses of action. Having said this, while non-profits are not usually money-driven, because money is a scarce resource for most organizations, there is a real danger that they can get sidetracked: worrying about how to make ends meet, they may well be tempted to do what pays, even if does not further the mission.

  • Non-profits offer their people continuous learning. Yes, learning & development spend is increasing. But what employees learn is often forgotten, not applied or not relevant. This is beginning to change as businesses embrace digital solutions for self-directed and tailored learning as well as coaching. Non-profits may not have a budget for flying their people out for a fancy week of training. Instead, they focus on on-the-job learning. This can certainly sometimes feel liking jumping into the cold water for volunteers, and so more mentoring & coaching can help them remain in the ‘learning zone’ rather than quickly burning out.

  • Non-profits ask a lot from their volunteers but also let them take responsibility to get the job done. Working for a non-profit, usually besides a full-time job, can demand a great deal from volunteers. Why do people still volunteer? Besides believing in & supporting the non-profit’s mission, and learning a great deal, it is also the sense of responsibility that volunteers have: that they can make a difference. Non-profits ask a lot from their volunteers and at the same time give them room and resources to get the job done.


From my own experiences in non-profits and consulting, I have seen these three insights at play. In addition, I believe business can look to non-profits for how to build strong relationships in their teams, increase engagement, and create the conditions for innovation:

  • Non-profits build relationships. The non-profits I have worked in, were heavily relationship-focused. Understanding other volunteers’ stories, sharing my own, seeing what the stories have in common and creating our shared story, gave depth to our relationship. We understood each other, and felt understood. Not simply knowing where your colleague comes from, but understanding how that shapes their thinking. Not just hearing that they enjoy the challenge of their new role, but also understanding what it is about challenging situations that gives that joy. It is that kind of relationship that makes people go the extra-mile. Not for the organization (even if they wholeheartedly believe in its mission), but for each other. If someone made a commitment to show up for a street action and it rains, even a powerful long-term vision and mission may not be enough to convince them to go – but because they made a commitment to each other, they don’t want to abandon their buddy.

  • Non-profits create room for participation. When volunteers are asked to contribute to more than their immediate area of responsibility, e.g. co-create the organization’s strategy, this demonstrates appreciation for their views. It shows that everyone belongs. It also captures the diversity of views & experiences that may otherwise be missed.

  • Non-profits spur innovation out of necessity. Struggling with limited resources, non-profits make a virtue out of necessity. They try to remain lean and optimize what they do and how they do it. They invent new solutions, because they cannot afford conventional solutions. Instead of drawing on a marketing budget, for example, they pivot to low/no-cost guerrilla-marketing actions.

Non-profits often ask: what can we learn from ‘professionals’ in the corporate world? In my consulting work, I have seldomly heard corporate clients ask: what can we learn from volunteer-run non-profits?



We tend to forget most of what we’ve read. Of course, we can do something about that:


Taking notes, skimming, understanding the structure of a book/argument, asking questions before diving into a chapter, summarizing the argument afterwards, talking to friends about what we’ve read (for more, I recommend the book ‘How to Read a Book’ – not a joke – by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren).


These are all ways to deal with Ebbinghaus’ ‘forgetting curve’: we forget information over time but can retain more of it, if we review it at key moments of the curve, what is also referred to as ‘spaced learning’.


There is another way to approach forgetting what we’ve read: acknowledging that it is normal, perhaps even necessary.


Neuroscientists are studying forgetting not as the opposite or failure of remembering but as a separate and essential component of our memory system. We forget so much, because so much of what we encounter is irrelevant to decision-making. Our memory is designed for intelligent decision-making, not storing as much information as possible. Our brains have mechanisms to help us forget.


So, we can do something about forgetting, all the while knowing that our brain does us a favour forgetting much of what we register.


But also: what if reading is not solely about recalling information in the first place?


If reading fiction for the joy of it makes us happier, then that’s a goal in itself. And if happiness itself is not a worthy goal, we can at least appreciate the many positive effects of being happy.


What is more, reading (fiction or non-fiction) enriches our world by giving us a chance to see the world through new perspectives. We feel what it’s like to be a tragic hero, we get a glimpse of a scientist’s madness or get a chance to float in Earth’s orbit. We do not need to recall anything particular about these experiences for them to be meaningful and add to our lives.


Finally, being exposed to novel ideas, contemplating whether we agree, seeing how an argument is developed, how it could be expanded, all adds to our own critical thinking and problem-solving muscles. We are going to the gym, whether we recall what exercises we did or not.

When I started my coaching training, one of the first exercises was on listening. It’s an essential skill for a coach. And I believe it’s a skill we can all use more and better to make an impact.



I found that the way I listen as a consultant is very different from how I listen as a coach. As a consultant I listen to pinpoint, while as a coach I listen to explore – most of the time.


Listening to pinpoint is all about getting to the bottom of things as efficiently as possible. You have a hypothesis, an educated guess and you listen to confirm or disprove it (often with an unconscious bias toward confirming).


When we listen to explore, we are curious. We are not attached to preconceived notions on the topic. Rather than running down the first rabbit hole, listening for a particular rabbit to climb out of a particular hole, we wait to see what else there is. For example, we do not jump into giving someone advice on ‘time management’ because we believe that’s the issue and we believe we’ve been there, we’ve seen it. Even if someone asks us to give advice on time management, it’s worth first exploring what that means: What’s challenging about time management for you? When have you managed your time well in the past? How did that look like?


And when, while listening, thoughts pop up (as they will), we know that we have a choice in whether to pursue them further or let them go and keep our attention on listening to what else the other has to say. A mindful state is probably what comes closest to this kind of listening.


Listening to explore can be difficult for someone used to giving advice, always wanting to have an answer. It takes discipline to not give in to saying what’s on our mind and rather hear what the other has to say. Just for a moment longer.


Magic happens when we use both ways of listening, and use them in the right situation. Early on in a project, a consultant may want to listen to explore rather than following the first hunch. And a coach needs to pinpoint when a client is saying one thing but hesitating on following through.

© 2021 by Daniel Matteo. Portrait photos © Peter Venus, Capital Headshots. Proudly created with Wix.com