Five Ways a Non-Profit Director Can Be An Entrepreneur

September 3, 2009 · Print This Article

As a Non-Profit Director, you are an entrepreneur as well. You have a product and a customer, and you are working to rearrange limited resources to create value.

For the non-profit entrepreneur, today earned income models are becoming the norm rather than the exception. While 501(c)(3) non-profits have a benefit of being able to receive tax deductible contributions, these contributions are often unpredictable and at times can influence a non-profit to go in an undesired direction.

The age of non-profits being able to rely solely on donors and grants is over. For a non-profit entrepreneur, an earned income model exists when the non-profit company sells a product or service to others and gains net income on that sale which is reinvested in growing the non-profit in a sustainable manner. The line between non-profit entrepreneurs and for-profit entrepreneurs is indeed getting gray.

While you are required to reinvest practically all your net income back into the organization, you have a great advantage. As a registered 501(c)(3) you can accept tax-deductible monetary contributions from individuals and corporations. You can apply for and receive grants from foundations. You can also receive in-kind donations from local companies or receive discounts or pro-bono work from service providers.
At the end of the day, just because you cannot distribute net income to your shareholders doesn’t mean you aren’t an entrepreneur. Here are some ways you can be entrepreneurial as a non-profit founder or director:

1.Create an earned-income model. Find a product or service you can sell to others. Just because you have to reinvest your profits, doesn’t mean you can’t make a profit. You don’t have to give away everything. The more value you create, the more you will can earn and the more you’ll be able scale your organization to serve its mission. –> Quick Case Study: As an example, a non-profit I’m the Board Chair of this year, Nourish International, has an earned-income model.

Nourish teaches college students to run entrepreneurial ventures on its campuses. These ventures range from ‘Hunger Lunches’ with corn bread and beans to poker tournaments to selling medical scrubs.

Nourish then takes the net profit from the students’ ventures and funds a portion of administrative overhead at the national office and contributes to community-based non-profit organizations in the developing world that work to reduce extreme poverty and hunger. This past summer Nourish sent 58 of its students to nine projects in developing countries. Nourish’s model is growing and it now chapters on 29 college campuses.

2.Have an entrepreneurial mindset. Just because you have donors doesn’t mean you don’t have to have a sense of urgency and work quickly and efficiently to produce results and compete. The market for non-profit donations is competitive and contributions will go to those that are well-run and maximize positive human impact with minimum dollars (or at least maximize human impact in the fields that those with resources most care about, a substantive difference).

While there seems to be a somewhat unfortunate reality that some well-established non-profits with celebrity representation or large budgets can often get the bulk of available contributions and crowd out perhaps more deserving smaller NPOs, many of these established non-profits were start-ups once as well and only came to be influential by being efficient, achieving their mission, and attracting larger and larger contributions and grants.

3.Hire people who are smart, ambitious and driven. Don’t settle for poor-performers. As a Non-Profit Director you have the ability to attract talented, caring staff members that are willing to work hard for less than market pay. Use this to your advantage.

There are driven, smart, ambitious, educated, and talented individuals in the work force that want to work for a non-profit. Too often I have seen non-profit entrepreneurs settling for lower quality team members and not managing their performance. Hire A players who are passionate about what you are driving to achieve and empower them to be entrepreneurial, take risk, and grow the organization.

4.If You Aren’t Maximizing Social Value, Consider Merging. One of the issues in the non-profit world is that it is rather challenging for one non-profit to merge with or be acquired by another non-profit. This creates the reality that there are often dozens if not hundreds of small non-profits inefficiently and disparately going after the same cause. Industry consolidation and M&A in the business world happens naturally as controlling shares can be purchased in private or public markets. For a non-profit this is not possible so it is up to the humility of the founder to consider whether a merger could create a better social outcome.

Allowing for the benefit of competition and time it takes to start-up, test your model, and make it scale–consider shutting down or merging your organization with a more efficient or larger organization if you feel like your organization isn’t best using resources to create positive social value. Non-profit mergers can allow the combined entity to share resources, reduce overhead costs, and go after bigger grants while achieving the shared mission.

5.Run your non-profit like a business, because it is. Non-profit organizations sometimes use their non-profit status as an excuse not to seek to be efficient, employ staff performance management systems, or make the tough decisions for-profit businesses have to make to survive and thrive. Being a non-profit does not mean you should not seek to earn profit. It simply means you must reinvest this profit. The more profit your organization can make the faster it can scale and grow and achieve its mission (of course don’t make a profit in a manner that goes against your values and mission!). After all, your non-profit corporation is a business, just one that has committed to reinvest its profits every year back into the business and not distribute them.

What type of organization should I work for to make the greatest positive impact?
Often the best answer to the question “what type of organization should I work for to make the greatest positive impact” is a gray hybrid to the old-school black and white.

The answer is often a for-profit business that is socially responsible and integrates the concepts of social business into its organization, or an entrepreneurial non-profit organization that is run like a business, efficiently and with a sense of urgency.

And finally, today the boring and bureaucratic public sector is slowly but surely changing as it is again becoming cool for smart driven people to work in government. The bureaucracy that is Washington D.C. can only change if it is infused with entrepreneurial, efficient management that has a sense of urgency and passionately cares about making a positive difference.


One Response to “Five Ways a Non-Profit Director Can Be An Entrepreneur”

  1. Kendrick Vinar on March 22nd, 2010 9:50 pm

    Excellent insights. Thanks!

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