What can we learn from studying sustainable nonprofits? In a word, plenty! That is the premise of a book dedicated to just this.
Invaluable Lessons Based On Sustainable Nonprofits
Ever had an experience reading a book where words, phrases, whole concepts seemed to jump off the page and completely resonate with you? Almost as if you’d written them yourself? Yeah, not me either.
Until, that is, I read, The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit, by Trey Beck and Jacob Smith.
What an awesome book about successful sustainable nonprofits!
Here’s the deal … I’ve been in business for a long time. I’ve read more “business books” than I can remember. Some were pretty good. Some were just okay. Others sucked. Not since In Search of Excellence, have I found myself really excited about what I was reading.
I actually highlighted selections of text. On lots of pages. I highlighted text! I never highlight text. But this was good stuff! I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything. I had to have a way I could go back again and find what I’d read. The ideas in those pages were that important. Not only to nonprofits, but any business. My business!
So, what makes The Nimble Nonprofit so great? First, I agree with pretty much everything the authors say, so they must be geniuses. There’s that.
But it’s more. The way the material is presented really resonated with me. Beck & Smith aren’t trying to impress anyone with how smart they are (although they seem pretty smart). They’re not writing a doctoral thesis. They’re not just pumping up the page count by saying the same thing five different ways. The book is short; you can read The Nimble Nonprofit in an afternoon.
What Beck & Smith are doing is sharing invaluable lessons from combined decades spent in the trenches. Time spent working alongside nonprofit staff, management and boards. Getting reality all over themselves. And they pass along their experiences in a stripped down, no-nonsense style. The authors employ a matter-of-fact manner that presents an inescapable conclusion; these guys really know what they’re talking about.
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So, what are they talking about?
At the core of the book is the author’s Nimble Nonprofit Manifesto, comprised of five central themes focussing on sustainable nonprofits:
- Question convention – Approach “conventional wisdom” with a large measure of skepticism. Ask questions about everything you think you know. I could go off on a complete rant about how “conventional wisdom” is usually more conventional than wise, but I’ll spare you. This time. You’re welcome.
- Be agile – Learn from the best. Experiment. Be willing to take risks. Failure is a great teacher if you fail smart. A personal aside; I’ve failed smart and I’ve failed dumb. Breathtakingly dumb sometimes. I recommend failing smart; when you apply the lessons you learned, everyone thinks you’re really bright.
- Build a great team – Hire slowly, fire quickly (man I love that phrase) and build a great culture. This is so important. One of the things we consistently hear from our clients is how much they enjoy the “family” culture we’ve built at The IT Guys. Culture counts. A lot.
- Keep your eye on the ball – Stay focused. Do what needs doing. Learn that saying “no” is an essential skill of a successful executive. The authors make repeated mention of the Sniffing Dog Syndrome; the temptation to go after squirrels instead of staying with the boring, but essential, task at hand. I can relate; I’ve chased too many squirrels in my time. Much to my detriment.
- Build strong relationships & networks – Create and sustain networks of supporters and partners. Do it by treating people well. And by telling great stories. Stories are such an awesome way to connect with others. They impart verisimilitude and humanity to a discussion like nothing else. I’m a fan.
Notice anything extraordinary about these points? What’s extraordinary about them is that they’re not really extraordinary at all. They just make sense. And they apply to all manner of businesses, not just nonprofits. That’s what contributes to sustainable nonprofits. Which is another key element of the author’s message … a nonprofit is a business just like any other business. Failure to run your nonprofit like a “real business” means you probably won’t run that nonprofit for long.
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There’s more. As a technology person, there were a lot of places in TheNimble Nonprofit where I found myself saying out loud, “Hey, these guys get it!”
What is it they “get” that’s so important? One gem among many is technology (computers especially) is critical key to the productivity and ultimate effectiveness of an organization. Failure to look at technology in that light is looking for trouble.
- Trouble in the form of low morale as staff are forced to try to accomplish their jobs using computers from another decade. – “Alright people, listen up! Our job is to build a space shuttle using only stone tools. Who’s with me?”
- More trouble with poor productivity brought about by technology that’s hopelessly out of date and more of an impediment to getting anything done than accomplishing something. – “What do you mean you can’t run Excel on your Apple II? Where’s your can-do attitude?”
- And even more trouble due to lost time as staff continually work around cranky computers that can barely play solitaire much less run the latest membership database application. – “All you have to do is reboot your computer twenty-seven times each day and it’ll be fine. Stop whining.”
Who needs all this trouble? Not me. Not you. Not nobody.
The importance of a planned technology refresh cycle is a foundational principal of sustainable nonprofits and of our IT Awesomeness Plan. Beck & Smith agree with us. Or maybe we agree with them. No matter; it’s clear the authors understand that a refresh cycle is critical to a successful nonprofit, or any other business. They make that point by relating the story of Jacob. Poor, poor Jacob.
Jacob worked at a social services nonprofit in Oregon where the conventional “use it until it breaks” mentality applied to their computers. The result? Systems were old, slow, unreliable, and ran a variety of operating systems and applications. Productivity? What productivity? Staff wasted countless hours trying to accomplish mundane tasks with their antiquated systems that current computers would have handled with ease. But they were a nonprofit. They just had to make do with what they had. There you go; conventional wisdom strikes again.
Jacob compared this situation to another organization that replaced computers every twelve months. The gains in productivity alone outweighed the costs. Amazing!
Now, even I, technology dude that I am, have to confess that a twelve month computer refresh cycle is a little … aggressive. At The IT Guys,we recommend a thirty-six month cycle. But, twelve months, thirty-six months, whatever … the idea here is old hardware, especially computers, will eat your productivity lunch. And you want to avoid having your lunch eaten. Get rid of old computers. You’ll be glad you did. But I digress.
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The main point Beck & Smith are making by recounting Jacob’s story is a HUGE one; your nonprofit is a business. Run it like one. Don’t be a martyr. Resist the temptation to wear your, I’m-just-a-nonprofit hair shirt. You’re a “real business”. Act like one. Manage like one. Use the best tools you can possibly get your hands on. You, your staff, your board and those who are served by your nonprofit will be glad you did.
And, oh yeah, read The Nimble Nonprofit. You won’t regret it. I promise.
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