If you’ve been around the non-profit sector for a decent length of time, then you’ve likely heard 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 “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” meme translates into the same authoritarian, top-down, command & control model that board members may be embracing in their respective private sector roles as executives and managers. In such instances, board members frequently have scant inclination toward understanding the culture, traditions, and histories of the non-profit organization and its 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 get a skewed, misleading impression of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses. They also may be cut off from news of valid concerns about the organization’s leaders and employment practices.
There are lots of badly 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 among the very best business practices available.