Learning the wrong lessons: Great organizations can’t ignore good management

In Forces for Good, the authors spend a lot of the time emphasizing that the great nonprofits they studied weren’t always the best managed.

Fair enough, but there’s a danger there. They may not need to be the best managed, but they do need some level of management.

Their research even proves this point. When discussing adaptation, they quote Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators who note that the “limits of innovation have less to wo with creativity, and more to do with management systems.”

You need good management and systems to get good innovation.

Crutchfield and McLeod Grant¬† even have a full chapter on “sustaining impact” that argues for investing in people, infrastructure, and systems.

Yes, great nonprofits are about great focus on mobilizing people toward the mission. That external focus is essential. Management is not the point and shouldn’t get the top focus. But that doesn’t mean you can ignore it.

(Maybe I’m defensive here because right now Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice in Ann Arbor is in the midst of doing a lot of management updates. We’re spending time getting our books in order, creating procedures for adopting new programs, and creating clear personnel policies. These won’t make us a great nonprofit, but they will make us a better one.)

Your mission is bigger than your organization. Remember that.

The Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, has made what appear to be some horrendous business decisions.

They started out okay. They built a top-notch experiential learning museum that gets kids touching and expereincing science education, not just staring at dusty vacuum tubes.

Then, after developing this great model, they gave it away. 

They encouraged other museums to copy it. They even paid to train other museum staff on their model. And until recently, they didn’t even charge other museums to use the Exploratorium’s own exhibits.

And what happened?

They revolutionized science education and museums.

Across the country they have had a dramatic impact in how science is taught. Their impact extends far beyond their own facility.

This “terrible business decision” worked because they aren’t a business. They are following a mission. And they will help other educators who are also following that mission.

And that’s a big reason why they have been featured in Forces for Good as a high-impact nonprofit. It’s a lesson we can all take to heart.

Looking In or Looking Out?

I’ve just started Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits. It’s a hot book in the field right now.

I’m to early in the book to make a judgment on it, but I am intrigued by the idea that nonprofit “greatness has more to do with how nonprofits work outside the boundaries of their organizations than how they manage their own internal operations.

Of the six practices the authors found, four relate to how the organization works with the outside world: other nonprofits, government, business, and individuals. (It’s interesting to note that the organization’s clients aren’t on this list.)

It’s a basic lesson, but easy to forget. Keep your focus on your mission and recognize that you, cool as you are, can’t achieve your mission on your own.

For another take on the danger of focusing too much on organizational considerations, see “Grassroots Rot.”