What Small Businesses Need to Learn from Nonprofits, (And What Many Nonprofits Need to Relearn)

by Ken Mueller on January 17, 2013 · 11 comments

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 What Small Businesses Need to Learn from Nonprofits, (And What Many Nonprofits Need to Relearn)

Nonprofits exist to do great things and bring about change in the world.

Nonprofits exist to solve some sort of problem, whether it be homelessness, a disease, illiteracy, or something related to pets or the environment.

To that end, nonprofits, in general, focus on the end user. If the focus of a particular organization is on cancer, everything they do is designed to meet the goal of either curing or preventing cancer in individuals. If it’s illiteracy, everything they do is to teach people how to read.

Nonprofits focus on the end user, the people, the client.

Even when they go through the necessary evil of having to raise funds, it’s for the purpose of helping the end user and solving a problem It’s to make a difference and change the world.

But what about for profits? What about small businesses?

In general, we tend to be short sighted, focusing on the money we bring in. Yes, we’re in business to make money, or are we? Aren’t we really in the business of meeting needs and solving problems?

If you’re an accountant, your job is to help people with their finances. If you’re a doctor, you’re in business to keep people healthy. Making money is a byproduct of that. Somewhere along the line our work became just a way to make a living, and we used our customers to that end.

But like nonprofits, shouldn’t for profits be in the business of solving problems, meeting needs, and changing the world? Shouldn’t the products and services we offer make a difference?

Focus on how your products and services can help the end user. Keep them happy and they will come back and talk about you. Solving peoples problems is a great way to make a living.

Oh, and I think some nonprofits could stand to relearn this lesson as well.


 What Small Businesses Need to Learn from Nonprofits, (And What Many Nonprofits Need to Relearn)
Brian Shope
Brian Shope like.author.displayName 1 Like

This is spot on, and so refreshing to read, Ken. I've wrestled with this as a consultant, making the jump from work/study in the humanities to doing social media consulting. My approach has been to encourage clients/orgs to focus on *their* clients, and the money will come. If our ROI is only intent on the money, we've missed the point. Likewise, if I focus on offering value and something that will help my clients succeed, they will also. The money is part of the compensation, but not the point. Thanks for affirming this!

Richard Frescatore
Richard Frescatore like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's always about the end user. We, including some non-profits, make it about profit and 'us'. It's inherently built into our system to confuse our priorities.

barrettrossie like.author.displayName 1 Like

Ken, I love this. 

First I want to comment on your closing line, which to me is the cherry on top. Not-for-profit agencies can be every bit as ineffective, clueless and even corrupt as for-profit businesses. Non-profits can be run by selfish, visionless, corporate-class, politically inclined executives who are perfectly happy to maintain the status-quo—as long as it's in the narrowly defined individual interest of themselves and their patrons—rather than solving problems. Cynical, maybe, but I think we've all seen it.

Second, your overall point is vital: You'd better be in business to solve problems, and you have to start with a real appreciation of your customer. 

I worked with a construction engineering firm last year that was in business for one reason only -- to solve the intractable problems that come with large-scale projects. They were so good at solving problems that they were acquired in a deal that would make most any Silicon Valley startup jealous. 

They didn't start out with the solutions. They learned them over time. But they passed over the easy jobs in order to take on the tough ones. As they grew, their premium soared. There was a huge job put out to bid nationally last year and seven major general contractors bid against each other. Each one of them included our local firm as part of the bid. 

If you subscribe to the big-picture view of marketing/business strategy, you have to be in the business of solving problems.

KenMueller moderator

@barrettrossie Thanks, Barrett, and I think you have done a good job summing it up. It's that big picture view that is important. Businesses that solve problems will generally be more successful than those that merely create products first, and then try to create the demand after.

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I work for a non-profit and was recently made the PR/Marketing person (not a huge leap when there are six people in the office). Do you have any tips for amping up our social media presence? We have a decent number of fans on Facebook, but our page is kind of stagnant.


@girlseeksplace I think you asked the right guy! (Ken? Oh Keeennnn...) 

KenMueller moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@barrettrossie @girlseeksplace I'm here, I'm here. The only way to make a page non-stagnant, is to use it. Update regularly with various types of content. use images, video, ask questions. Like any type of relationship building, it takes time and persistence. You have to show people that you are there and available. Also, I don't if you have a blog for your nonprofit, but if so, make sure you share that content on FB as well. Also, encourage your clients to use the page to ask questions (though I say that not knowing what sort of nonprofit it is.) 

One more thing, check out the Inspiring Generosity blog over at Razoo.com. I'm biased because I contribute there from time to time, but their regular writers are all great, with content specifically related to nonprofits.

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