From the Head: Can Businesses Learn from NonProfits?

ElsaMarie D’Silva is the founder of Red Dot Foundation, which is transforming how sexual and domestic violence is reported around the world. She began her work in response to a horrific incident in India and transformed this tragedy into global change. Ultimately, this is a story of determination, resilience and impact, which we’ll share below. Yet the way Red Dot has grown also speaks to a broader question: what can business learn from the nonprofit sector?

In fact, over the next several months, we’ll toggle between two sets of questions, which really stem from the Head and Heart. From the Head, we’ll focus on how nonprofits truly work in the field and what we can all learn from them. From the Heart, we’ll share personal stories to highlight what drives nonprofit leaders to enter this challenging field and what keeps them going. Should be a great journey. For an introduction to this Social Profit series – see Social Profit Blog #1 about the Head and the Heart

Okay, now back to the subject of this essay and, ultimately, Elsa Marie’s story.

For decades, a key focus of nonprofits – and the donors who fund them – has been on how nonprofits should function more like business. There is, in fact, a good reason for this.

Nonprofits do benefit from applying best business practices. From team building and accountability to service delivery and impact measurement, appropriate business practices do help. In many ways, they enable nonprofits to prioritize what they do best – using often limited resources for the greatest possible impact.

In fact, Gratitude Network applies these principles when we work with nonprofit leaders. For example, we offer a Scaling Up course to help nonprofits set ‘achievable goals’ and define meaningful ‘key performance indicators’ that don’t overburden staff. And later this year, we’ll introduce a new program on impact measurement and how to best communicate that impact to the world.

However, this is only half the story. The other half is what this essay is about.

For nonprofits do some things exceptionally well. Having worked for twenty years in the corporate world (Bechtel and Deloitte Consulting), I know that those in the business sector would do well to learn from them.

The list of learnings ranges far and wide. From stakeholder engagement and ‘customer’ service to being able to pivot quickly in response to shifts in the ‘market.’ A key question is why! Why have nonprofits become so adept in these areas? The short answer is: they’ve had to. Their broad mandate – to effect meaningful change in a community or the world at large – is always tempered by limited resources. So, in a very real sense, they’ve had no choice but to get really good at what they do.

Let’s start with Mission and Purpose – and relate this to Elsa Marie’s journey. We’ll address market responsiveness and other topics later.

Nonprofits typically spend a lot of time defining their mission and purpose. Sometimes too much! But that work is critical to defining their true value proposition. Why they do what they do and, ultimately, why a donor or partner should value their work?

ElsaMarie began her work as a gut-level response. A brutal gang rape left a woman dead. The incident shocked the country and made global headlines. ElsaMarie felt compelled to act.

Without a strong tech background, she pulled together a strong team, including: crime experts from the FBI and elsewhere, abuse experts, tech experts, an ethicist and more. Together, they created SafeCity an app to safely and confidentially report incidents of abuse.

Quickly, use of the app grew throughout the country. Yet ElsaMarie realized that to have lasting impact, an app was not enough. She needed to adjust her vision and mission.

Specifically, she needed people working on the ground, in communities where the incidents happen – and are typically hidden. She also needed to educate families, local police and community leaders on the prevalence and terrible impact of such violence. And she needed a way to use the data that the app was generating to advocate for change – both in the community and nationally. So she incorporated as a nonprofit, to generate needed funds, and she clarified a core mission to drive the organization forward.

After several iterations, Red Dot Foundation clarified the following mission:

End violence against women and girls using crowdsourced data, community engagement and institutional accountability.

It’s brilliant! In one sentence, the mission incorporates their key purpose and the method they use.

Since formation in 2017, Red Dot Foundation has grown to work in 17 countries and has been translated into 7 languages, with more on the way. Clearly, their success is due to an app that is freely available and both safe and easy to use. But their mission, which lies at the heart of what they do, is central to their growth.

This is not to say that successful businesses don’t focus on mission as well. Yet the strongest nonprofits, by continually focusing on their value proposition – out of necessity – have learned to do two things well. First, they’ve learned to craft meaningful mission, vision and purpose statements that are compelling to staff, donors and the groups they serve. Second, they’ve learned to incorporate that mission and vision into their daily work – in other words, to guide their core decisions.

The lesson, of course, is that both sectors – business and nonprofit – can learn from each other. In some respects, perhaps the key lesson is that both business and nonprofit are IN the service sector. They both have customers, or beneficiaries. They both must respond to the market, and be efficient, and adhere to their core mission. In the end, what we need is a willingness to listen and learn from each other, and a network to make this possible for the benefit of all.

Okay, that’s enough from the ‘Head.’ Next session, we’ll look at the ‘heart’ of nonprofit work. We’ll feature a story from Madagascar and how one woman has used her personal, painful experience to address an important, equally hidden issue in her country, and the world.

Steve McCoy-Thompson

*Steve McCoy-Thompson has worked over 30 years at the nexus of business, government and the nonprofit sector – as a management consultant to and with Fortune 100 companies and government ministries and as executive director of nonprofits and a community foundation. He is currently the Executive Director of Gratitude Network, which helps nonprofits apply best practices and business principles to reach over 40 million children worldwide.