"The things that cause a nonprofit organization's success are often the very same things we couldn't stand about the for-profit world when we worked there."
How can you tell the difference between a good organization and a great one? The answer is in The Mission Myth: Building Nonprofit Momentum through Better Business by Deirdre Maloney.
What exactly is the Mission Myth? It’s the myth that heart alone will fulfill a nonprofit’s mission. Success is coupled with hard work, determination, leadership, and most of all, what Deirdre calls the 4 M’s: Money, Marketing, Management, and Measurement.
What makes Deirdre’s insight unique is that she’s been through the corporate world too before making her way towards executive director of the Colorado AIDS Project. She has learned from mistakes and synthesized the myriad lessons. She now runs her own company which helps nonprofits run more smoothly through better business.
While written primarily for leaders in the nonprofit sector, one of the biggest revelations she shares is that the assumed rift between nonprofit and for-profit is mostly illusive. When it comes to serving your clients and running a great organization, despite what the bottom line is, there’s still a need to have organizational systems, good communication, and fiscal responsibility, so that operations can run effectively and efficiently. These are the ongoing traits that will empower everyone to thrive and accomplish a lot. Sometimes the greatest lessons shared between great businesses and nonprofits are the way they handle the 4 M’s.
Leadership Is Always Required
"It may be the mission that drives you. But it's the business that drives you to success."
Leadership is a pre-requisite before the 4 M’s can be diagnosed and addressed with honesty.
When ex-corporate refugees strive for the nonprofit sector out of pure altruism, there’s a belief that you will leave all the lethargy behind. Surprisingly, that same tension of office politics, bureaucracy, and inevitable responsibility with resources (money, staff, etc.) can still emerge within the confines of a nonprofit. It still takes skill to soothe conflict and ultimately transcend pain points into strengths.
Despite whether you’re a nonprofit or for-profit, it’ll still take a great leader and a great team to set milestones and execute the steps to get there; manage outcomes and results; own failures and learn from them; acknowledge the need for growth; clearly communicate the mission and its values; empower staff, clients, and stakeholders; manage money wisely; and balance passion with grounded business savvy.
How an organization endures in these areas is what distinguishes an organization that merely does good, versus an organization that does good well. Mission and business leadership shouldn’t be considered separate, or sacrificed over the other. They’re not mutually exclusive. In fact, they belong together.
On the flip side, this same advice can resonate for business leaders, too: For doing business (or anything) well, you must not forget the passion for what you do in the first place, and this can be the passion for your craft, your industry, or even the love of helping your customers or clients. Have you ever witnessed a business that conducts “business as usual?” Where the mission statement taped to their office walls seems lifeless and phony?
Relationships Still Matter
"Providing good customer service means you won't just get customers involved in your organization one time; it means they'll come back."
Every handshake, phone call, compliment, and thanks, will have an effect on our clients and communities.
Deirdre begins the lesson simply: When people join your organization for the first time, it’s most likely because of the mission. But what keeps them coming back?
When you give people sincere thanks, or go the extra mile in nurturing your community, they’ll remember it. When you turn a simple misunderstanding into a petty battle, they’ll remember that, too.
This is the timeless lesson on customer service and their experiences with you. The relationships we build should never center on a one-time sale or transaction.
Deirdre insists that we teach these lessons to our staff (and even volunteers). How well you continue to treat your customers can have a lasting effect on your communities. It builds up an image of your organization in their minds and influences what they ultimately do for you.
Go back to your last interaction with a business or even a nonprofit. How did you feel? What did they get right that got you coming back? What you believe about customer service will reflect in the way you treat them. And they’ll remember it. It’ll determine whether they’ll come back, or leave for good.
Forest People vs. Tree People
"If you recognize your category and work with others to supplement you, you can help each other out. If you blow it off or think you're better, you can and will drive each other crazy. It's your choice."
How well an organization executes and builds momentum depends on how well people work together.
Deirdre presents her theory between Forest people and Trees people: Those whose strength is their focus on the big picture, and those whose strength is their focus on the details.
Forest people quickly see the lay of the land. They create momentum by avoiding mundane details. However, they’re prone to skip over the truly essential details that are necessary for buy-in and overall success. Trees people aren’t strangers to success, but they can embrace the intimate details of any project, yet they’re also prone to “analysis paralysis,” losing sight of their true goals, and eventually delaying momentum.
Neither one replaces the other. We all possess the traits of the Forest and the Trees as well as the inherent caveats. Both are essential to an organization’s success. However, we’re not perfectly balanced between the two and we tend to skew to one side. Not all of us have the foresight to clearly see both the big picture or the details at the same time.
Tension can also arise between both forces. Not only can they act differently, but they can communicate differently, too. Forest people may speak broadly about big goals and may encourage others to get on board. Trees people pull back to assess the little steps that are feasible. But harmony can still be struck between the two. How? Suspend judgment and remain patient. Humble leaders must be great communicators while respecting both ways of seeing and thinking. Understand your team, and adapt your actions and words.
It’s not easy to admit our gaps and seek out our other halves. In your business, how were you able to supplement yourself? Have you acknowledged whether you were a forest person or a trees person? How were you able to discern between the two, and bring different talents together in harmony?
While there’s more beyond management, leadership in this area can determine how easily the other M’s follow through. The Mission Myth is a timely reminder that no matter what your bottom line may be, how well you balance mission and business can mean the difference between doing good and doing good well. It can mean the difference between failure and long-term success.