By Janine Vanderburg, President/CEO, Joining Vision and Action (JVA)

On March 10, JVA concluded Executive Director Academy, our signature executive director training, with a Genius Bar panel. I had the privilege of posing a series of questions that were on my mind to some of my favorite nonprofit executive directors:

And since I would be able to personally fund most nonprofits in metro Denver if I had $10 for every time in my thirty-plus year career that someone has told me “nonprofits should operate more like a business,” I decided to flip the script and ask instead:

What can businesses learn from nonprofits?

Here’s what our talented genius bar panelists had to say.

  1. How to develop and run a mission-based organization. Increasingly, consumers are looking to do business with organizations that have a social purpose, and employees are rejecting working for businesses that simply have a profit motive and ignore the environment and social costs of their business practices. Nonprofits quickly learn how to communicate their mission and values to motivate staff and volunteers and to engage donors; the most successful nonprofits embed mission, vision and values in all of their work and operations.
  2. How to collaborate with your customers. There’s a lot being written lately about how businesses need to engage with their customers in a more meaningful way. Because of their organizational structure and frequent resource constraints, nonprofits need to engage community and collaborate with their constituents to achieve their bottom line of creating social change. Businesses can learn from nonprofits how to authentically engage community, how to partner with others toward an end goal, and how to pivot to meet changing needs.
  3. How to evaluate more than the financial bottom line. The traditional measurement of the success of many businesses is simple: A plus sign on the financial bottom line. And while nonprofits clearly have to keep an eye on that, they need to do much more. Even the smallest nonprofit quickly learns the importance of evaluating metrics about their social impact, human resources, ROI of fundraising and marketing efforts, etc. There’s a lot businesses can learn from that.

So the bottom line is: The next time a friend from the corporate sector says to you, “You know, nonprofits should operate more like a business,” what you might just do is smile broadly and ask, “So how’s your social ROI these days?”