What Can Non-Profits Learn From Entrepreneurs?

Participants in Sanctuary Collective's Discipleship Training Program have a 'conversation on paper' at their opening retreat

In progressive organizing, it is common for us to look with disdain at capitalism. In the United States, we can point to growing economic inequality, we can see that risk is public (our taxes bail out the banks) and rewards are privatized (the executives get the bonuses), we understand that sinking prices mean sinking wages and sinking quality. When we answer only to the bottom line, exploitation of workers and the environment is not an exception, it is a necessity.

And so many of us attempt to do things differently. We create charities and found non-profits. We organize community gardens and collective houses. We work at local cafes and bookstores. Some of us dumpster dive.

I’m not convinced that we found a solution in our reaction against the ills of capitalism. On the one hand, our registered 501(c)(3) non-profits participate in the USA’s capitalist economy. On the other, our informal collective houses and community potlucks cannot possibly handle the gross immediate needs of homelessness, hunger, and poverty in our city, nation, and world. And on yet another hand, our direct actions at Lockhead Martin or the local gun shop do not effectively undermine the systems and cycles of violence in our world.

Too often activists and non-profits leaders seek change outside of ourselves (even while expressing platitudes about “being the change”). We want other people to give us money to fund our programs. We want other people to modify laws and regulations. We want other people to share their wealth.

And here is where we must take a lesson from the capitalistic world in which we live: we must articulate a clear, compelling vision for a new way of being and then we must graciously and continuously invite people into that way of being. We must actually be the change we wish to see in the world. And we must allow for others to be their own change as well.

Apple sells products because they are slick, and they function well, and are a passageway into a community of cultural movers and shakers. I am not suggesting that we sell out our missions for the sake of popularity; the most necessary movements are often the most unpopular. But we must never forget that our mission, our movement has something much greater to offer than that which we must give up.

Entrepreneurs understand their audience deeply. We have Ideal Customer Profiles and Target Audience Demographics. When I worked at a television network, we had detailed viewer profiles including ages, marital status, income level, and even what type of cars and phones they used. How many charities are started to “help the homeless” without ever knowing someone who is homeless? How many shelters for abused women are run by people who have never been abused?

I am not proposing that we all abandon our non-profits and our organizations. Rather, how can non-profits incorporate the nimble and creative spirit of entrepreneurs? How can collectives tap into the best lessons capitalism has to teach us while undermine the worst?

Direct Empowerment

Capitalism offers an alluring story: rags to riches, you can be anything, the world is your oyster. Non-profits must offer a compelling story as well. My friend Onleilove wrote in an article for Conspire Magazine when she goes back to her neighborhood, she must dress well, have an education, and a well-paying career in order to prove that there is an alternative to gang life and poverty. The part-time work, self-imposed poverty, and hand-made clothes of some (mostly white) progressive activists are not inspiring to kids choosing between school and the street economy. Our alternative vision must take care of us.

Immediate Effects

When I started a job at a television network in 2007, my mid-five-figure salary began hitting my bank account two weeks later. Entrepreneurship says “You will reap what you sow.” While we organize for universal health care, we cannot forget that some of us are sick right now. Some of us are weary from a life of food insecurity; working part time at a radical bookstore and living on food stamps while we dream of a future utopia is neither sustainable nor desirable. We must begin—right now—to take of ourselves. Legalize Trans is one such example. We are committed that the ability to transition never be limited by finances. And until that day comes at an institutional level, we are working to create systems that will allow us to take care of ourselves and provide for our needs.

Audience needs

A good business knows their customer inside and out. What they need, what they think they need, what they want. They know what their fears are and what lights them up. Effective business copywriting speaks directly to the target consumer with a particular purpose in mind. As we imagine and create new realities, we need to know exactly to whom we are speaking. What are their needs and hesitations? Why should they take part in creating a new world? And what will they find when they join us? What, exactly, is our vision? Where, exactly, are we leading them? We can understand and meet the needs of people without exploiting them. We need more of that.

Flexibility

When Steve Jobs wanted to create a new type of phone (and then a new type of tablet), Apple did just that. The Walt Disney Corporation creates cartoons and television shows and amusement parks and hotels. Polaroid can stop creating polaroid film when it wants to. Businesses always have a finger to the pulse of the world and they react accordingly. Sometimes, this creates greed and injustice. There is a need for access to cash in low-income communities and so some companies prey on these communities through high-fee check cashing and high-intereset pay day advances.  Other times, companies simply try to tap into the current social consciousness: NBC has a “green” campaign (how eco-friendly can an international television network ever really be?).

What companies use for profit, charities can use for social good. We can pay attention to the changing world and react accordingly. As more and more people communicate online, we can meet them there. As a large percentage of our population ages, we can serve those needs. Too often, non-profits become entrenched with “how we’ve always done things” or board members become concerned with maintaining their interests rather than creating justice for everyone.

Instead, our organizations need to adapt and evolve with the same ferocity as our for-profit counterparts.

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The most exciting times in business (non-profits are no exception) are when they’re young and fresh and full of possibility and when they’re older, established, and effective and yet unafraid of change, growth, and re-imagination. If you’re a non-profit leader, how have you breathed new life into your organization? If you’re an entrepreneur, what are some tips you would offer to your non-profit counterparts?