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What business can (still) learn from non-profits

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?

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