It’s not personal, it’s business

Storytelling Resources for Nonprofits

Image by ACPL via Flickr

I love this phrase – it’s been thrown at me a lot in my lifetime.

I’ve never worked in corporate America, but I’m assuming in that environment, the mantra works. No one is emotionally attached to their work – it’s a job, a paycheck, or a line of work they excel in.

But that phrase doesn’t work for nonprofits.

In today’s economy, more nonprofits are modeling themselves after traditional businesses. You must to survive. More nonprofits are creating hybrid fundraising models, where part of the income comes from traditional donors and sponsors, where as the other is income from a business. It’s the future and honestly, it’s what nonprofits need.

Herein lies the problem. Nonprofits take in business strategies, but everything about the nonprofit world is personal. The staff, the volunteers and the publics they serve are all emotionally invested in the work. There’s no way to do business as usual without taking it personally.

Nonprofits base their marketing and fundraising on having a story. You won’t succeed unless you have a strong story that explains your mission. Inevitably, there will be some tugging on the heart strings – we’ve all come to expect that from NPOs.

But you can’t expect to rock the boat, piss people off, and be able to go about business as usual. Nonprofit work is gritty, and someone has to make the hard decisions – but they’re going to be harder than any in the business world because of the emotional investment.

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  1. At Forty (which is a straight-up, for-profit company), we’ve actually moved *away* from the “It’s just business” mentality, and embraced the “It’s personal” side of things.

    Since making that decision, we’ve doubled in size, stabilized our cash flow, and have almost university positive reviews from our clients.

    (It’s a big change from our “it’s just business” days when most of our clients were upset at any given time, and we were fighting about money all the time.)

    It was a strange and counter-intuitive change of direction, but it has worked wonders for us. I understand that’s not for everyone, and I don’t necessarily disagree with what you’ve said, but I wanted to put in a plug for the “It’s personal” side of the equation, because it’s made a huge positive difference in our business.

  2. There are a lot of people who use the term “It’s not personal, it’s business” to justify unethical or shady decisions in business as if under cover of moneymaking, anything goes. And given the often huge salaries paid to non-profit executives and often low salaries paid to small business owners, it’s really difficult to discern a difference between profit and non-profit businesses except at tax time. And on a personal, not business note, I miss not seeing you at the front desk at RAK. 🙂

  3. I can see the generalization that you’re making about business vs nonprofits, but I dont necessarily agree. I think that being emotionally invested in your work is a lot more about what kind of person you are. I know people who work for big corporations (myself included) who are very invested in their work – I stand up for my company when someone says something negative about it. I also know people who work for not-for-profits who go to work for a paycheck (they do like the organization, but it’s not a personal passion of theirs).

    I definitely agree that NPOs are taking on the more traditional model of business, but that’s because the traditional business model is working for many companies – they’re making money… a profit 🙂 And while NPOs aren’t looking for a “profit”, they are looking to take in more money than they spend, as that’s more money that they can pour into their cause.

    • As always, generalizations are a tricky area. Yes, I agree that it depends on the type of person you are, just that nonprofits do tend to attract those who are looking for meaning, not necessarily money, in greater amounts. As for your line of work, I think hospitals are an interesting side case, as they are often for-profit enterprises that rely on their staff being very personal.

      I sincere believe nonprofits need to structure themselves more like businesses, as you said. The donor money isn’t there anymore and diversifying is the future. The trouble is that nonprofits make personal stories their business. They rely on that personal tug to bring in volunteers, money, staff, etc. It’s something they’ve got to work out, you know? Hospitals have been doing that for years, so maybe there’s a lesson to be learned =)


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