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Lessons from Nonprofits


Nonprofits can teach private industry a lesson or two about navigating relationships and meeting demand with limited resources

Story by Christopher Jossart

“Who’s taking out the trash?”

From general cliché to genuine task on the “to-do” list for many nonprofit organizations, garbage removal can be a simple lesson in lean office operations. If the trash doesn’t find the door on its own, eventually someone will drop everything and remove the mess before it becomes a distraction. This common, simple task exemplifies what life is like for a lot of nonprofits and is not a far stretch from the daily realities that often require a different way of thinking from the private sector in order to succeed.

Experienced nonprofit professionals tend to develop a sense of keen attentiveness based on two factors – the result of working in an industry where one is expected to wear many hats, and the flow of open communication due to smaller office spaces. Most nonprofit agencies work with limited resources, and with exception, cannot “departmentalize” their services.

Nonprofits are often organized where each staff member oversees certain high-end duties, like accounting and payroll. From there, it is open game for charity employees and task expectations; you won’t see one staff member going to the “sales” or “marketing” department to ask for specialized services. Everyone sells. Everyone markets in this industry. It is this “getting tossed in the ring of fire” environment that effective communication skills and relationship building find a home in lean for nonprofits.

Balancing relationships with technology

Whether nonprofits are innately lean or not, because of limited resources, only scratches the surface of how these organizations approach conducting business. These agencies sell mostly intangible services – human service needs, community support resources, and so forth – not something that typically makes consumers run out to wait in line for the latest touch phone or GPS unit.

Nonprofits are models at leveraging relationships. Their focus on investing time in face-to-face marketing practices in today’s high-tech world sharpens a commitment to placing emphasis on people first. Conversely, it negates a lot of for-profits’ belief that going lean in first point-of-contact procedures saves money and better serves customers.

How many times does a consumer call a company only to find an array of automated prompt options? Truly, some nonprofit organizations follow this procedure too, but many purposely implement first point-of-contact strategies that serve each inquiry with relational relevance. The intake process is designed to meet volunteers, donors and business partners in concert with their unique needs through some sort of interpersonal – such as face-to-face or telephone – interaction.

Granted, geographical limitations and customer time preferences limit this protocol from being a one-size-fits-all solution. Philosophically, however, with so much emphasis on communicative technology today, communicating interpersonally can be viewed as the winning “X-factor” in landing a sale and making a lifelong customer. At one time, handshakes and conversations played significant roles in business deals. Today, PDF files, text messages, social media and Bluetooth dominate that scene. Consider this: what if the handshake or interpersonal conversation returned to distinguish your business from what everyone else is doing?

“Communication tools like email, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter all serve a purpose with our organization, but we still place more emphasis on two-way dialogue,” said Julia Drobeck, executive director of the Volunteer Center of East Central Wisconsin, an Appleton-based organization that matches volunteers and volunteer groups with customized opportunities to serve. “It’s a rigorous task, yet it reduces assumptions and misperceptions about a volunteer’s expectations.”

From a lean perspective, eliminating waste on the front end of a client/business interaction is better than creating rework or making changes on the fly on the back end. Relationships can be damaged, staff can lose direction, and organizations will have to reallocate time commitments on back-end repairs. At least the consistency of investing time in the front end of an interaction keeps an organization focused on efficiently and consistently serving its clients’ ongoing needs.

Training for-profit employees to perform intake procedures like the nonprofit sector would be a great way to use cross training as a relational lean tool. Some businesses train their employees in “elevator speech” summaries as a means of quickly capturing the company’s scripted mission. Why not take the elevator up one more floor and rethink how your customers are being served the first time they look to you for a product, service or referral?

Steering relationships to ‘retentionships’

With limited resources, not a lot of time can be spent on attracting new donors, program participants, volunteers, etc. Emphasis is placed on volunteer and donor development, and in turn, these are the individuals who best attract new clients.

All businesses are cutting back on expenses today in the new economy. Mass marketing strategies are shifting to more targeted outreach. Social media and Web-based marketing tactics are emerging as much needed methods of reaching more people. It’s important to understand that how you reach potential clients is as important, if not more relevant, than how many people you’re reaching.

Personalizing intake procedures is best done by creating clear expectations to your clients and potential clients from the outset regarding the next steps in communication. Building email marketing distribution lists, for instance, is fine in a lean world that focuses on saving postage and time, but it is not enough. Investing a little extra time in how your clients wish to be communicated to is the key in practicing effective retention. Let them proceed on their terms.

For-profit businesses get consumed in rigid order processing protocol, mass marketing practices and departmental politics. Take time to get to know your customers when the initial interaction is made, even if it’s as simple as asking, “What’s the best way to share information with you?” The standard, “I’ll be in touch,” has become a one-and-done approach that treats all customers as numbers.

Tammy DeJardin, executive director of the March of Dimes Wisconsin Chapter – Green Bay division, said informing participants that her organization’s fundraisers will be primarily communicated by email creates a simple, personable expectation.

“Walkers who participate in our March for Babies events understand what staff and volunteers go through each year to make the experience successful, so they appreciate knowing where to go for information on their own,” said DeJardin. “Because we take time right away to clearly explain the details and expectations, (the walkers) become empowered to help us by taking ownership of this event. In the long run, they become our best advocates and recruiters, saving us time and money along the way.”

Most nonprofit organizations have practiced lean operations for a long time due to necessity. Their time obstacles are balancing program tasks with fundraising responsibilities. Addressing these challenges can be done by building skill sets in employees who can identify the next dollar, the next program recipient or the next marketing opportunity.

Maybe for-profit businesses can learn a lesson or two from the nonprofit sector in finding a home for relationships and effective communication within lean processes.

Christopher Jossart is a freelance writer based in the Fox Cities.