Recently I read this article from the Wall Street Journal on the recommendation of a family friend who knows my interest and experience in both business and philanthropy. As a graduate from a corporate-minded business program, my decision to pursue a career in the non-profit sector while my peers were eyeing investment banks and packaged good companies was a departure from the norm. This became all the more apparent when I got my first job at the Children's Aid Foundation in Toronto and was surrounded by colleagues and executives with backgrounds in the arts and social services. While their hearts were always in the right place, I couldn't help but feel that the organization would have been more efficient, and therefore more successful, if there had been some more business acumen at the table. The way I see it, charities and non-profits are selling a cause. But as the Wall Street Journal article indicates, this is a controversial perspective, and I've had a number of interesting (not to mention heated!) conversations on this very topic over the years.
Now that I'm at Raised Eyebrow, a for-profit company that serves the non-profit sector, I see our clients dealing with the same double-edged sword. In today's reality, with a growing number of charitable organizations competing for a share of declining disposable incomes, non-profits are struggling to stay top of mind. But they are also under microscope of public scrutiny more than ever before and so are struggling to stay top of mind with limited marketing budgets and a cautious approach toward creating too much of a splash. While the goal of any corporate marketing campaign is to get noticed, it's not unusual for us to get creative direction from clients along the lines of "it should look nice but not expensive" so as to avoid any undue attention. As a society, we seem to have have banned non-profits from the marketing-101 principle that "you have to spend money to make money". It's almost a wonder how any of the great work these organizations do gets done when we put them on such a high pedestal!
I recognize that there is likely no perfect system and that giving non-profits more freedom to operate like corporations creates more potential for fraudulent practices often seen in the corporate world. But I agree with the Wall Street Journal - I think with the proper check and balances in place and a paradigm shift in the way we think about how non-profits should operate, we'd go a long way towards accomplishing a greater good.