Puppies & Robots | Pat’s POV on Non-Profit and For-Profit Organizations

Posted on May 1, 2009


The actual title of Pat’s POV (Point of View) is “Mission or Performance: The False Dilemma.” However, I like the “Puppies & Robots” imagery.

I work in a non-profit (church), and this “false dilemma” is a challenge for me, personally and professionally. To put it in more blunt terms, it drives me crazy sometimes. With that, I’m always thankful for sentiments such as the ones below, and hope that more in the non-profit sector would become attuned to these sentiments. More importantly, because the work that we do in the social sector is so critical to the fabric of our culture, it is imperative that we pay attention to this.

Here are a few highlights (bolding and underlining are my additions):

…Anyone who has worked in or consulted to NFPs (Not-For-Profits) will tell you that the differences between FPs and NFPs is much greater than taxes and capital distribution — and that it involves culture, attitude, accountability, strategy and a host of other things. And that’s the thing; I don’t know that it should. Perhaps we’ve just allowed organizations on both sides of the profit aisle to choose their own areas of mediocrity and lower standards.

So many NFPs (but not all of them) are allowed to accept lower levels of accountability and productivity and rigor around ROI [1] than their FP counterparts. What is the rationale? Since they rely on volunteers and don’t pay as much to their staff members, they can’t expect us much.

And so many FPs (but again, not all of them) feel no need to tap into the passions and idealism of their employees, and give them a sense of mission. Why? Because their purpose is to maximize compensation for investors, and everything else is just window dressing.

Of course, this is ridiculous, and only makes sense if we see employees as either puppies or robots, incapable of simultaneously embracing two distinct motivations and outlooks. The fact is, all of us are part puppy and part robot. We want to be motivated by something meaningful, and we want ourselves, and others, to be held accountable for their performance and the value they produce.

So perhaps leaders need to stop thinking of their organizations as FPs and NFPs and start using a more meaningful and actionable criteria for categorization. Is your organization going to be a mission-driven one (an MD), or a performance-driven one (a PD)? Of course, the greatest leaders will choose both. They will inspire their employees around something more meaningful than simply profit, and they’ll drive them to standards of measurable performance regardless of whether or not the CFO has to pay taxes at the end of the year or how they distribute excess capital.

I work with a lot of puppies. And my problem is that I want to put shock-collars around them to get them to act and behave appropriately. Here are some helpful tools that may help to bring focus and mission.

1. Hire people who are deeply committed to the mission first, to their career second, compensation third. No incentive package will ever be able to transform someone’s internal motivational discipline. That must be personally developed (though externally influenced).

2. Compensate according to mission driven accomplishments versus profit driven ones. While salary should not be a driving factor in the NFP sector, it can be used as an incentive, and it expresses the values of the organization. It is the flip side to “put your money where your mouth is.” That is, “where you put your money is where your vision/mission is.”

3. Continually remind your staff and constituency of the vision and mission. Consistent reminders of who they are in the context of the organization and why they exist is perhaps one of the leader’s primary jobs. Especially in the dysfunction of NFP world, this reminder is critical to keeping the organization moving forward and averting any entropic decline.

4. Celebrate together whenever the mission is realized, in small, and in big ways. While NFP employees work for an idealized goal, because of the very nature of the work, it will never be “fully realized.” That is to say that if it were, your work would be over. Therefore, you must continually celebrate each and every movement towards the ultimate goal, or else cynicism, discouragement, and other “demotivators” will creep in to the spirit of the organization. Routine and disillusionment can kill the NFP.

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[1] Return On Investment