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What the corporate world can learn from nonprofits.

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

It’s on every nonprofit leader’s bingo card: a much sought after new board member from the corporate sector has been recruited, and they want to shake things up. “Be more entrepreneurial,” they say. “Why can’t you think like a business?”

While I agree nonprofits should always be looking to new sources of inspiration beyond their sector, I find this mindset so tiring. Nonprofits (and governments, for that matter) are not businesses, nor should they aspire to be. In fact, in the absence of modernized employment equity legislation, it’s often nonprofits who do the work of calling out corporations for their anti-labour and anti-planet activities. Yet we’re constantly asked to follow the corporate sectors’ lead, while our own knowledge, values, and practices are rarely recognized as valuable.

I believe that businesses have the opportunity—and the responsibility—to be drivers of social change. If corporate leaders are ready, I think they can learn a lot from the nonprofit sector.

Here are some places to start:

Your mission and values should be core to your operations.

To motivate people to take action, you must tell a powerful story with a clear call to action. Nonprofits know this more than most, and the good ones use their mission and values to drive their decision-making, mobilize around systemic injustices, and build lasting relationships with donors and supporters.

The same is true in the corporate world. A useful product isn’t enough—to make strategic decisions and create connections with audiences, your company must have a compelling reason for its existence. How does your company see its role in society? How does it challenge the existence of social inequities, both internally and externally? Can their workers afford to eat and pay rent? Is the CEO making one hundred times more than the lowest paid worker? How is it making meaningful progress on its stated commitments? If employees and customers are confident that their own values align with those of your company, there exists potential for an enduring and reciprocal relationship.

This mission can’t just be a marketing technique. I’ve seen how ineffective that approach can be—even in the nonprofit sector. People must trust that your stated values are actually embedded in your operations and not just some nice words. In this age of social media, companies that don’t practice what they preach will quickly be revealed and made to pay a big price in the court of public opinion.

Treat your workers like they’re essential, because they are.

Businesses that proactively create supportive work environments are publicly celebrated, attract and retain top talent, and minimize turnover. Yet I constantly see corporations advocate against the very policies that could strengthen their operations,such as paid sick days, a liveable minimum wage, and modernized employment equity legislation

Of course, the nonprofit sector still has work to do in this regard, but I’ve seen many organizations excel. Providing benefits on day one of employment, creating systems for pay transparency, and reducing gaps between the lowest-paid employees and senior leadership are all excellent ways to start.

Next, leaders must recognize that staff teams are affected by the oppression that’s rampant in our society, and that they possess incredible skills and knowledge that are often devalued in contemporary workplace culture. Effective nonprofit organizations recognize the value in supporting their employees to engage with social causes inside and outside of work, and in creating space for them to process traumatic events with time away from work.

Chart a bold course for the future of your company—and the world.

There’s no way around it: progress starts with recognizing the harm caused by capitalism, neoliberalism and wealth inequality, and taking a public stand for bold systemic change. The health of our communities is a collective responsibility, one that can’t be shunted off to charities, nonprofits and small community groups to tackle. Taking on this responsibility will also enable you to be more authentic, reciprocal, and effective in your work and allyship.

Not to mention - following a mission-based approach has powerful internal benefits, and can help you avoid taking wasteful risks or chasing trends. With every decision, ask yourself, “Does this support our mission (those other than making more money)?” If the answer is an honest yes, you can feel more confident that it’s worth investing time and energy.

As published in the Globe and Mail Leadership Lab Series in April 2021

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