Teaching businesses a thing or two

publication date: Apr 5, 2013
author/source: Janet Kranz

Barely a day goes by when I don’t see an outpouring of love from the business community to the nonprofit world. You know the kind of thing I mean:Janet Kranz photo

  • “What can charities learn from big (or small) business?”
  • “Ten business strategies for taking your charity to the next level”
  • “How to modernize philanthropy, by Europe’s top investment banker”
  • “Key lessons for emerging charities from five top CEOs”
  • And a recent favourite: “Special Offer: Save 15% on insight into the latest fundraising insight”

On my most cynical days I admit to finding some blasts distasteful. Call me old-fashioned, but I want my voluntary sector’s fundraising efforts to aim higher, see farther and be more socially and environmentally ambitious than a well-developed business plan.

And given the continuing global economic meltdown, the disappearance of any shred of job security anywhere on the planet and the arrival of a new generation of workers with a powerful sense of what some refer to as “entitlement,” I have to wonder if nonprofits are serving the future needs of our fragile sector well with this continuing pro-business, for-profit, commercial drum-roll.

Charities as relationship curators

Happily, I see the winds of change already at work. Exciting and innovative new fundraising paradigms are clearly visible on the horizon, and ambitious nonprofits are moving towards them, determined to change the way charities “do business.”

You can see it in the micro-financing sector and especially with charities like Kiva. Billing itself as “the world’s first online lending platform connecting online lenders to entrepreneurs,” Kiva and others are taking a bold step back from fundraising norms and using their leverage to cement the donor-beneficiary partnership, rather than the one between the charity and the donor.

This is an exciting move. It not only makes for a less “controlling” relationship between charity and donor, but it also carves out a new space where a charity’s curatorial skills are key to shaping the gift. In other words, at organizations like Kiva, fundraising is less about The Ask and managing the donor’s money, and more about bringing the donor into direct contact with the beneficiary to stimulate the most generous gift possible.

With efforts like these already in evidence, I have to ask if it’s time charities began to share more insights with the business media to benefit the many companies now floundering in turbulent commercial seas.

For me, the writing is on the wall. So I’d like to pitch in by suggesting five lessons from the voluntary sector to help business better adjust to the needs of an openly sourced, socially networked and increasingly more compassionate world:
Be kind

It’s never helpful to confuse your clients so they no longer understand your nature or purpose. A charity’s mission must be clear and unequivocal. That way, all the stakeholders – clients, staff, directors, funders and volunteers – understand the mission goals and objectives, and over time work together for improvements. Telecom companies, in particular, please take note. It is a kindness not to hinder customers in their efforts to understand the terms, conditions and pitfalls of doing business with you.

Be accountable

Charities routinely share knowledge, seek transparency, are accountable and reduce collective risks by cooperating with umbrella groups to better manage their big sectoral issues. Corporations routinely shy away from transparency.

But if they did not, could we expect commercial disasters like those at Bhopal in 1984 or in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 to be cleaned up faster and more equitably? Even better, using a nonprofit mindset, could industries susceptible to wreaking havoc better manage that risk by openly cooperating and sharing intelligence? Can these industries seek to do this so transparently they actually engage the public trust?

Pay it forward

In 2011 there were 12.5 million volunteers in Canada. In 2007, volunteers contributed around 2.1 billion hours. I’ll venture a guess that a vast number of those volunteers work in and for business. But how many of those company employers invest directly in their communities or do business according to a set of equitable values? In 2010, Canada’s business registry contained just over 2.2 million names, yet Imagine Canada records just over 100 companies registered with its national Caring Companies program.

Seek the greater good

“There is a crack, a crack in everything.” Charities, as even Leonard Cohen knows, have their shameful moments. But the intent to do good things is built into a charity’s DNA. If industry followed this lead could, they increase their contributions to the greater good and still manage their bottom lines? The answer is yes. For easy proof, check out how countries like Norway or Brazil approach sustainability and revenue sharing in the management of their energy sectors.

Let light in

Business is tough. It can always be improved and needs perpetual monitoring. Every few years we see revisions to a new ISO series of international standards for corporate quality management. But isn’t that the point? To quote Leonard’s Anthem again, “that’s how the light gets in.”

Charities prove time and again that they are fearless in seeking the light, and people in societies the world over benefit from their drive, selfless enthusiasm and determination to make a lasting, positive difference wherever they operate. I think it’s an impulse we need to encourage in business to help it prepare for the huge challenges facing our changing world and its turbulent global economy.

Janet Kranz is principal at JK Associates, a boutique consulting firm specializing in creative fundraising, research and marketing solutions for nonprofits and charities. Based in the Ottawa area, Janet works with local, provincial and national groups especially those seeking dynamic content to promote social, cultural and multicultural programs.

Contact her or visit www.jkassociatesgroup.com.    

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