Any Not For Profit That Runs Like a Business Will Go Broke

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Are you tired of being asked, “Why can’t you run your not for profit like a business?”

I’ve written about how not for profits can use advice written for businesses (with just a little translation).  When it comes to not for profit finance, however, some business wisdom is just wrong.

Clara Miller, the former director of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, explains why.  In her wonderful article, “The Looking-Glass World of Nonprofit Money,” she lists seven assumptions that businesspeople make that–in the not for profit world–are just not true.

  1. “The consumer buys the product.” False. Donors and funders buy the “product” (which may be a service, a program, or a campaign), and clients benefit from it.
  2. “Price covers cost and eventually produces profits, or the business folds.”  False.  Not for profits are devoted to their missions and will keep on pursuing the mission as long as they  can.  They have a sideline in fundraising to support their “business”–but it also saps energy away from the reason they exist.
  3. “Cash is liquid.”  False.  Government and foundation grants are often restricted to specific purposes and can’t be used to pay for anything else.  A not for profit can get more grants and have less money to pay its day-to-day costs of doing business!
  4. “Price is determined by producers’ supply and consumers’ ability and willingness to pay.”  False.  Since the consumers don’t pay (see #1), they don’t have the say.  Government or foundation funders decide what they’re willing to pay AND how many clients the not for profit must serve in return for the money.  If it’s not enough, the not for profit has to make up the difference with fundraising, or the quality of service suffers.
  5. “Any profits will drop to the bottom line and are then available for enlarging or improving the business.”  False.  Many not for profits have spent less than budgeted only to see their budget reduced for the next year, on the theory that they must not really have needed the money.
  6. “Investment in infrastructure during growth is necessary for efficiency and profitability.”  False.  Well, actually, true, but not recognized by funders!  Many funders want to pay for program, but only a far-sighted few will invest in building capacity for the future.
  7. “Overhead is a regular cost of doing business, and varies with business type and stage of development.”  False.  As Miller says, “Overhead is seen as a distraction—an indication that an organization is not putting enough of its attention and resources into program.”  (Thankfully, this is beginning to change, but only beginning.)

Working in the not for profit sector, have you heard well-meaning but useless advice from people who think you ought to “run like a business”?  What would you want those people to know?

By Dennis Fischman : Dennis is a Cause & Effective Associate who helps not for profits and small business discover better ways to communicate and, in the process, win friends and get the support they need.

About B-Cause

B-Cause is published by Cause and Effective. Our goal is to inspire, inform and encourage people doing good to do even better.

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