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When did donors become investors?
When did “behaving like a business” turn into a mantra?
Why do we consider board members (or donors) an organization’s owners?

I have basically observed, volunteered in or been employed in the nonprofit sector since graduate school. I experienced the heady days of social change and the commensurate soul searching, and the changes in both government and the nonprofit sector. I’ve seen the gradual shift in perception to government labeled as “evil” and nonprofits as inefficient.  As I’m preparing to teach this spring I am once again struck by the power of language to shape our reality.  Because I’m most embedded in the nonprofit sector and for such a long time, I’ve seen the power of language change the way we talk about ourselves, present ourselves and, most importantly, do our work.

Let’s take the idea that nonprofits need to be more business-like or behave more like a business.  On the plus side, this has meant that many nonprofits pay more attention to their financial situation and more boards attend to their fiscal responsibilities.  That’s all good.  Many nonprofits have been encouraged or desirous of getting more for-profit/corporate folks on their boards. This too has some positive implications as business people often have good savvy when it comes to making business decisions.  But nonprofits really aren’t like their for-profit (or government) counterparts.  Nonprofits do not (generally) exist to fulfill a financial bottom line. Nor do they exist to mediate the needs of everyone in society (like government). Nonprofits tend to put significant emphasis on process as well as product so that how you get some place is as important as where you’re getting.  If you’re in the business of making money, and you’re a beverage company, what difference does it make if you are selling tap water bottled in plastic bottles, or soda, or beer for that matter? Not much really.

I could go on, you get the idea.

By holding ourselves to a standard that is not us, we run the risk of selling ourselves down the river. Pretty soon the mission, which has been the MOST important thing we pay attention to, is, well, a little less important than whether we are making money. Notice I didn’t say breaking even. Because if you adopt a for-profit perspective, making money is key.

I’m being a bit harsh but I’ve seen it happen.

Here’s a cautionary tale I ran into recently (names and particulars changed for obvious reasons). Groups A and B are getting married aka they are negotiating a merger.  A real merger not one of those puffed up mergers where in reality Org. A is absorbing Org B.  They are carefully working through the process and working with consultants that understand the deft hand required in these negotiations. It’s a kind of slow process needing much communication (in person). Progress is being made although the outward and tangible signs are not quite there yet. They are not quite ready for the paperwork although they would like the respective boards to sign on to the “intent to merge.”  It has indeed taken a long time, they are almost there, but time and patience are required for a few more bits of negotiation.

But, here’s the wrinkle. There are four new board members (out of twelve) with substantial business background. They want to know why things are not moving in a more “business-like” manner. The processes, and progress, are not quite real for them. They are anxious for the particulars to be fully defined rather than the deliberative move the organizations are taking to first fully explore the intent. The idea that you would identify intent and then move carefully to fulfill the intent just doesn’t make sense to them

Is this wrong or bad? Not really, there are legitimate reasons for the moving the two organizations along and getting more concrete about the particulars.

The piece I want to highlight is the misunderstanding, culture clash if you will, between the lens these board members have and the perspective of the staff and other board members.  It’s ridiculous to assume that an organization that is mission driven (two organizations in this case) can move at the speed of a “business decision” with what is a very delicate operation of merging two cultures and sets of goals.  This is probably why most “mergers” are just gussied up takeovers. And why some people believe that merges mean someone wins and someone loses.

So what’s my lesson learned here? Basically, do your board members really know what you’re about?  Board members without a business background should get some training on the legitimate, particulars of running your kind of “business” – how to read financial statements, how to supervise and evaluate the ED, how to plan.  And your business sector board members likewise need training and mentoring – how to read a nonprofit financial statement, how to understand the culture of nonprofits, how to be mission driven.  You need a variety of backgrounds on your board to have truly effective stewardship. But folks have to be understood both the nonprofit orientation and your organizations specific mission, values and approaches to be truly effective.

As we adopt the language of the private sector, what distinguishes us as a nonprofit sector (or voluntary sector or third sector or what have you) begins to fade. And the very elements that define our particular way of viewing, of being mission driven, may wear down to the day when we look at each other and say, what happened to us.