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Learning From Others

August 2, 2010

We all make judgments about who we can learn from. I find wide variations between individuals, business functions and organizations in their openness to learning. There are some companies that appear largely closed to outside influences. Others are highly judgmental in the types of organizations from which they feel they can learn.

In ‘Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business”, non-profit leader Nancy Lublin suggests that business could learn from charities. She observes that most people in the for-profit sector perceive those in the non-profit arena as ‘horribly inefficient’. Consultants exhort them to adopt the behaviors associated with ‘the concentrating power of the profit motive’.

Some non-profits are inefficient. But they are not unique in that attribute. As Ms Lublin points out, many private sector companies are also non-profits in the strict sense of the term, even though it is not their intent. In my experience, non-profits can also be among the most efficient organizations. They frequently lack resources to develop a bureaucracy; they tend to have a strong sense of mission and motivation; they operate with levels of teamwork that are generally seen only in start-ups. And their marketing can be extremely effective, since it depends on creating a sense of faith and belief in their audience.

Non-profits generally motivate their employees without needing to pay a fortune. They often create ‘brand enthusiasts’ who volunteer their time to help and become powerful advocates – just the sort of viral marketing that businesses often seek to achieve.  And they find creative ways to address problems or to innovate because they don’t have the budget to do it any other way.

As the leader at a non-profit, who moved from the world of large corporations, I find the experience refreshing. It is good to be able to do the right thing, rather than the most profitable thing. It is good to be able to offer help where we feel it is needed, rather than based solely on who will pay. It is good to have an outstanding team that is driven by a sense of mission and enthusiasm for what we do. It is good to have the appreciation of our members, who recognize that everyone at IACCM really cares and works long hours to deliver valuable services.

There is no doubt that for-profit business can offer a different set of rewards; but I agree with Ms Lublin that there are always many opportunities for cross-learning and that includes better understanding of how it is that non-profits can also succeed and develop highly efficient delivery models. And in that process, perhaps also better understanding the way that for-profit motivations can distort behavior and undermine long-term performance.

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