Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Nonprofits, business models and communities of need

Posted in nonprofits by Timothy Platt on January 5, 2010

Nonprofits seek to fulfill missions and visions. They exist for a purpose, and their strength is in addressing their purpose in ways that bring benefit to specific people and families, and to the communities they collectively comprise. I have written at least in passing in previous postings in this series, Nonprofits and Social Networking about communities but I have not addressed any of the issues that would make nonprofit-centered communities distinctive and perhaps even unique.

I have written of missions and business plans, and of strategy and operational considerations in defining and managing nonprofits. But these only carry meaning where the organization employing them reaches out to address genuine need. It is in identifying such need and providing a focus for addressing it that a nonprofit finds strength and meaning. And this all begins with community.

People organize into communities for at least as many reasons as there are members and generally more. But when people come together around a nonprofit they generally share a common bond and reason. A well conceived nonprofit begins with a mission statement that clearly articulates both a need and a compelling call to action for addressing it. The community that would come together around that nonprofit is the collection of individuals and individual families affected by that need. For The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society it is blood cancers, but it can be any issue of significant social and societal impact. That, at least is the potential community, but actually building a vigorous nonprofit means getting members of that potential for community involved and organized. To connect this posting back to previous postings in the series, that has to be a significant goal if not the key goal for any nonprofit strategy – developing and strengthening a community, and both for those affected directly by the issue of its mission and by those who would provide financial and other support. Operations in turn would effectively serve to carry out mission and as such should be community focused too.

This becomes crucially important insofar as too many nonprofits seem to get trapped in the momentum of ongoing process and procedure and they can loose the direct and immediate connection to their communities. They can loose their immediate relevance.

One way to do this is to focus too much on a small group of big donors and supporters, some of whom might be passionately involved with the nonprofit’s issues and mission, but with others who might simply be picking a nonprofit to support per se, and primarily towards the end of the year and for tax purposes. In this the vitality of the organization is in its ongoing connection and commitment to the people affected by the issues their mission addresses.

I am not arguing that major donors are unimportant, and rather that the vitality of the organization does not necessarily come from them, even as much of their financial wherewithal might. Both are needed. And the heart and soul of the nonprofit and its reason for being comes from the community and the potential community it needs to reach out to, both to keep its mission in focus and to work towards meeting its goals. So nonprofits have to be grass roots organizations in mission and vision, and in basic operational and strategic goals. And community is the key to everything.

The next posting in this series is going to look into nonprofits and blue ocean strategy.

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