If you hang around the non-profit sector for any stretch of time, then sooner or later you’re likely to hear some variation of this line: We need to run this organization more like a business. Typically the mantra begins with a board member or two, keeps getting repeated by others, and eventually rolls downhill.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve seen the effects of poorly-managed non-profit organizations as both a lawyer and a professor. If running a non-profit group “more like a business” means empowering effective, inclusive, and socially responsible leaders and holding them accountable, then I’m all for it. And if it means maintaining fair-minded, ethical, and transparent employment practices, then count me in for even more.
But all too often, the “more like a business” mantra translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that at least some board members who are drawn from the private sector may embrace in their respective roles as executives and managers. Oftentimes these board members have scant understanding of the culture, traditions, and histories of the non-profit organization they supposedly serve, and they may have a very condescending attitude toward its rank-and-file employees.
In terms of employee relations, these attitudes and practices can have unfortunate consequences. Board members may hear only from top managers within the non-profit, and thereby they may have a skewed, misleading impression of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. They also may be cut off from information relating to valid concerns about the organization’s leaders and employment practices.
There are lots of poorly managed, dysfunctional, low morale businesses out there. Some of them are run by people who serve on non-profit boards. Let’s not emulate their errant ways. If we’re going to run non-profits “more like a business,” then we should at least pick & choose wisely among the very best business practices available.
This post was revised in August 2019.