Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Nonprofits as businesses: more effectively connecting mission and vision, strategy and operations 1

Posted in nonprofits by Timothy Platt on July 11, 2019

I have written over 2,600 postings to this blog as a whole as I write this one, but I have only added 41 of them up until here, to my specifically nonprofit-oriented directory: Nonprofits and Social Networking. And looking back at this ongoing flow of new content here, that strikes me as being at least somewhat of an anomaly. I make note of that here and in that way, because working with nonprofits has been so critically important to me in my work life and professional career path. I am drawn to working with businesses that have good people, and that strive to fulfill positive missions and visions. And good nonprofits tend to develop around both.

Much of what I write in my Business Strategy and Operations directory (in its Page 1, Page 2, Page 3, Page 4 and Page 5 listings), applies equally fully to for-profit, not for profit and nonprofit businesses, and certainly as I address all of them as they would more effectively follow business model approaches per se. But I have not added as much as I could have and not as much as I probably should have, that would focus on nonprofits in particular in all of this. Then something I did not expect began to happen. All of a sudden I began seeing visitors to this blog, clicking to view the admittedly sparse, explicitly nonprofit content that I have included here, and one posting in particular as an apparent emerging favorite, and with readers of it coming from North and South America, Africa, Europe and Asia: Nonprofits and Blue Ocean Strategies.

I have been thinking a lot recently, about adding a new series to this directory that would build from that and related postings already available here, as I think back over my nonprofit work experience and about how these organizations do and do not effectively succeed as businesses per se, and in addressing their missions and visions as a consequence. And this more recent readership interest in my blue ocean strategies posting in particular, has given me the impetus to begin this new series now, rather than wait on it as I continue working my way through the ongoing collection of more business model-agnostic series, that I am already developing and offering here. So with this posting, I increase my actively under-development list of posting series by one again.

And I begin this first posting to it proper, and this series as a whole by stating the obvious: nonprofits, if coherently functionally organized and viable at all as potential ongoing enterprises, are always mission and vision driven. They are set up and run with a long term goal in mind that is defined by the terms of their particular mission and vision statements and those statements form their hearts and souls. And it is almost a truism that a nonprofit mission and vision are going to be long-term and even fundamentally open-ended in nature, as end goals. They can in fact be fundamentally unachievable, at least as absolute goals and more properly serve as aspirational direction pointers, in intent and in practice.

• “End world hunger.”

That overarching absolute goal might be the core message of a nonprofit’s mission and vision. But realistically that organization’s ongoing actionable goal is going to be to help feed the hungry who it can effectively reach out to and connect with, and in ways that at least ideally are self-sustaining for them.

• “Cure cancer” (as in all cancer.)

This may in fact be an attainable goal, some day and even in the world’s least served communities and among its most marginalized people. But realistically, this is a multi-generational goal as are others like it, for their far-reaching and open-ended scope of intent and of proposed action. Any nonprofit that sets out to fully realize this lofty goal is going to, of necessity, plan and work towards fulfilling step by step parts of this seemingly endlessly large and endlessly complex puzzle.

For-profit and not for profit businesses often have missions and visions too, and in principle at least virtually all of them do, at least as roughly considered points of intention. But these mission and vision statements tend to be very different in nature, and certainly when for-profits are considered there, and certainly when they are more formally thought through and written out. Consider the following:

• “Build and run the best shoe store on the planet: the very best shoe store possible.”

The How of curing all cancers or of definitively ending world hunger are still works in progress for even mapping out categorically what should be: what would absolutely need to be done in order to genuinely, completely fulfill them. For the world hunger example, how much of that effort (and at what stages of its fulfillment) should center on developing new crops that can grow in what are currently marginalized environments for agricultural production? And even just considering food production per se here, and setting aside the issues of wider food access and distribution among others, how much of this effort should go towards preserving the environment, through efforts to preserve or even improve soil quality, and water supply and with better buffering in place to protect against the extremes of drought or flood?

Ending world hunger is an aspirational mission goal. And any simple-to-state mission or vision statement like it is in most cases more likely to reflect overall long-term intent, more than it does any more here-and-now operationally specified goal, as could be explicitly encompassed in some timeframe-specified strategic plan or its more here-and-now execution. My shoe store example, on the other hand is more readily applicable as an explicit operational goal; it is more of a briefly stated functional road map, or at least more of an explicit pointer to one. And in this, effective strategy and the operational and other business practices that are developed out of it, can be seen as fleshing out that business’ (admittedly very ambitious) overall long-term goal.

Let’s consider that shoe store in a bit more detail, starting with a simple question, at least for its asking, that the above retail mission statement all but compels. What would the owners and employees of a shoe store need to do, and how would they best do that, in order to make their store really good and even great, and even an at least possible best of the best that they could achieve?

• Obviously, a great retail store needs great merchandise to sell. This in turn means good product design and selection, and high production quality. And it is not going to matter if this store sells the best when it has that in stock, if it cannot reliably have the items their customers would want, in stock. So good, great and best here call for effective supply chain systems and access to the best manufacturers through them, and on an ongoing, reliable basis.
• Price is important here too, so developing and maintaining good contractual relationships with suppliers, for price points and other terms of sale issues enters into this.
• But having the right products and even having them at the right prices is still only part of this puzzle as compacted into that brief above-offered shoe store mission statement. The physical location and the store size and layout are important too. A potentially great store that few can actually get to, posing this in bricks and mortar storefront terms, is not going to succeed very well and even if it has everything else working for it. Location can be king here.
• And the storefront itself, once reached, has to be open and easy for a customer to navigate in, and comfortable to shop in and as stress free for its customers as possible. I distinctly remember walking into a large sporting goods store once just to turn away and leave, and almost immediately – because the volume of the teen consumer-oriented music was so loud that it was literally physically painful! And looking around before leaving, I did not exactly see all that many actively engaged teen shoppers there anyway.
• And this brings me to the sales managers and the sales personnel and others who work with them there and who their customers would actually see and interact with, and both in finding the products that would best meet their needs, and in making purchases there. Training and support need to be great for them if that store is going to be great for their customers. And this brings me to the back-office support staff that this business would need and have too, and their training and support, and with effective communications systems available throughout the store and with all in-house stakeholders there, connected in.

My goal here has not been to exhaustively outline the operational details or functioning of a retail store. It has been to point out how, unlike ending world hunger or curing all cancer, it is known and in detail, how to build and run an effective retail business. So an effective mission statement for that type of enterprise can in fact be a fairly direct call to action, and with a large and complex set of what are at least in principle, achievable strategic and operational goals built into it.

Now, how can a nonprofit, with its more intrinsically open-ended, aspirational mission and vision statements, frame them and itself as an organization too, so as to be more directly achievable? At the risk of offending those who aspire to mission and vision greatness, as offered in my cancer and hunger examples, how can the leaders and the employees and the volunteers as well, who contribute so much to their nonprofits, make them more strategically clear-cut and operationally focused too, and in ways that are more effective in working towards fulfilling their missions and visions as a result – like that shoe store, and without sacrificing their overall mission and vision goals and aspirations?

My goal for this series is to at least shed some light on how that question can be better answered. Meanwhile, you can find this and related material at Nonprofits and Social Networking.

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