The Corporate versus Nonprofit Debate
Disclosure: I have never really worked in the corporate world. My current position–where I consult to and manage nonprofit organizations–is actually the first time in my life I've worked for a for-profit corporation (that wasn't my own company). Basically, I've been in the nonprofit world my whole career.
But I must have missed some of the kool-aid, because I seem to be on the opposite side of the fence when it comes to the perennial conversations about "us versus them." You know this conversation. It's the one about the good and caring nonprofit associations trying to advance America, versus the heartless money grubbing, profit-focused Gordon Gekkos of for-profit corporations.
Okay, I'm overstating it a bit, but not much. And I have just never bought it. I get that corporate cultures are different than nonprofit cultures, but I have always thought nonprofits are businesses, and I have always thought that corporations are run by people who, as humans, care and have passion and want to make a difference. The two communities are different, but not as different as we make them out to be.
Some of these ideas came out in a thoughtful blog post by Association Executive and fellow blogger Eric Lanke on the Hourglass blog. Eric was responding to Umair Haque's post on HBR about being "disruptively" good in business. In short, Haque argues that business will do better by attending to making the world a better place in addition to having a healthy bottom line. It's not an entirely new argument–Dan Pink makes similar points in A Whole New Mind. Part of Eric's response sounded a bit of an alarm bell for associations about this:
We run the risk of having the business sector co-opt the missions of many associations and non-profits, making us even less relevant and even less capable of affecting the change we seek. What good will associations be if the finanical and resource muscle of the for-profit sector gets solidly behind transformative social movements instead of just selling "unhealthy sugar water"? And who are the talented young people of the future going to want to work for? The ineffective association that pays 50 cents on the dollar compared to the socially conscious and highly effective corporation? How can associations win a talent war with those kind of battle lines?
Later in the post Eric also talks about the opportunity here, rather than just the threat (and I think the opportunity was really the emphasis of Eric's post, rather than the threat). But I want to point out something about this "threat," because I think it reflects some fairly widely held beliefs and it highlights the false dichotomy between business and nonprofit that I was alluding to above. The way I see it, the threat could be framed like this:
We have a problem because organizations with billions and billions of dollars in resources are now going to focus on our mission, and we can't compete.
Wait. Wouldn't that be a good thing if billions of dollars were now being focused on our mission? For all our talk about mission and doing good, why are we so suddenly focused on our bottom line and organizational existence as soon as corporations enter the picture? Why does it matter if we, the association, exists? What is the "problem" with billions of dollars now going towards the mission but in the process the American Association of Doing Good Professionals is not in the yellow pages any more?
Don't get me wrong–I'm not advocating for the end of associations. I think there are legitimate answers to those rhetorical questions I just asked. But when asking the question, "why does it matter that associations exist," I am desperately hoping that you don't answer with "because we have a nonprofit tax status." Is that the best we can come up with? We're nonprofits, so we're the good guys, so we have to be at the table?
Neither nonprofits nor corporations are entitled to exist. So forget your tax status for a minute, and forget any preconceived notions that you have about the corporate world. If billions of dollars in resources suddenly moved to your mission, why would your organization need to be a part of the picture? Because your community is so strong that you can get things done quickly and wisely at the same time? Because the world trusts what comes out of collaborations under your umbrella since you carefully engaged diverse stakeholders? Because you add tremendous value to the community?
Notice that I didn't say because you have a really good annual meeting, or because your magazine is awesome, or because your listserve is very active, or even because you have the top expertise or knowledge in the field. It's not about the things you do or have, it's about the value you help create. I think, in general, we are not clear enough about the value piece. It's fuzzy by definition I suppose, but we still need to do a better job. And honestly, it shouldn't take the threat of a corporate takeover to get us thinking about it. Regardless of competition or tax status, how can we be more valuable? How can we raise that bar? If we find ways where our tax status gives us a leg up in creating incredible value, then more power to us. But the focus should be on a new standard of value creation, not our existence or our tax status.