More with less, less with less, or…zilch?
There’s nothing like a recession to teach everyone to do more with less. And as we’re still in the (maybe improving) throes of a downturn, the Nonprofit Millennial Blogging Alliance chose as our next group topic this very idea–specifically, what nonprofits can teach businesses about doing more with less. Our inspiration is Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business by Do Something CEO Nancy Lublin. So while you should really be reading the book, until it arrives from Amazon, you can read our collection of posts! Everyone wins.
Any nonprofit employee can reel off dozens of examples of their organization doing more with less. But I think it’s something of a red herring. Let’s not kid ourselves: nonprofits have been doing more with less for the entire 400-year history of our sector. Whether the economy is in the tank or through the roof, it’s no stretch to say that nonprofits are the most efficient organizations in the country. In fact, it’s almost arrogant to call ourselves “nonprofits”–as in, “Look at all this good we can do with laughably little money! What, you need venture capital, private sector?” (Granted, some nonprofits have more cash than they need; it’s not unheard of to be overfunded and understaffed while scaling up a program. But that’s the exception rather than the rule.)
So doing more with less, while efficient and industrious, isn’t the story. The story, in fact, is about doing less with less.
It doesn’t make sense, does it? Who would want to do less with less? Where’s the achievement in that? The trick, however, is not doing less, period; it’s doing less by yourself.
If the industrial revolution taught us anything, it was about the stunning efficiency of the assembly line. Each worker on the line did one task: attach a hose, for example. That one task wasn’t enough to build an entire car. But hundreds of people doing one thing, and doing it perfectly, built car after car after car. It’s not just mechanical production that demonstrates this concept. Specialists in the animal world work together in symbiotic relationships to accomplish tasks they can’t do alone. (It also makes for cute pictures of hapless birds perched on giant ungulates.)
This is where nonprofits diverge from their counterparts in the private sector. Nonprofits can do less with less–but with greater results–when they specialize and collaborate.
Thanks to the Foundation Center and the Lodestar Foundation, we can search a database of collaboration examples that showcase various types of collaboration across the country. I’ve been watching this concept in action over the past year as Washington Nonprofits, a new state association, has been crystallizing in my home state. (Full disclosure: I’m on its founding board. But that doesn’t make it any less of a solid example.) Washington Nonprofits isn’t being built from scratch; instead, it’s forming through a more Frankensteinian process of existing groups contributing their specialties to a larger purpose. For years Washington’s nonprofit sector was served by a handful of infrastructure organizations that each focused on a geographic area, and some on a facet of nonprofit work, such as volunteerism or leadership training. Certainly the state’s nonprofits were lucky to have them, but their fractured efforts still weren’t the same as a statewide association that could respond to the needs of the entire state sector and represent it at the national level. Recognizing this, in 2009, leaders from these organizations decided it was time to launch a joint effort. The result is an association that blends the skills of multiple leaders to benefit organizations that would otherwise be part of the turf of one at a time.
And turf is the operative word. Specialized nonprofit collaboration works when leaders refuse to get dragged into turf warfare. Turf warfare certainly isn’t unique to nonprofits. In the private sector it’s called competition, and is considered a driver of innovation. Ditto for biology, where the concept of survival of the fittest originated. It’s easy to see why competition would be celebrated in these spheres. Apple and Microsoft, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Domino’s and Pizza Hut…don’t their constant turf wars (or market share wars) give us better and better products?
Of course. But can you imagine what Adonis of a mobile phone Apple and Microsoft could come up with if they actually worked together? Forget just buying it…I think I’d want to bear its little electronic offspring.
Nonprofits may never get credit for anything as sexy as an Applesoft phone. But while businesses are struggling against each other to do more with less, nonprofits at least have a perfect opportunity to do less alone and more together. Embrace the beauty of less with less: Stop trying to squeeze water from a stone. Find someone who needs your rock and has a well.