"" Tim Coates: Lessons from Constraint

Monday, December 12, 2011

Lessons from Constraint

Humans have an uncanny ability to believe they're above average. Psychologists have a word for this, illusory superiority. According to Wikipedia, it's when people overestimate their positive qualities and underestimate their negative ones.

In one study analyzing driving safety and skill, 93% of US drivers put themselves in the top 50% for skill and 88% thought they were in the top 50% for safety. One survey of faculty at the University of Nebraska found that 68% rated themselves in the top 25% for teaching ability

People who strongly identify with certain groups can do the same. In more than a few conversations I’ve heard successful business people compare themselves favorably to other professions. Haven’t earned your chops in business (and not fake business, like HR or law)? Then you don’t have chops.

I've been thinking about this because I'm meeting with a lot of private sector people and interested in positions there. What skills did I develop running a nonprofit that might help me jump to the other side?

Creativity and Resourcefulness
One significant difference between a private and nonprofit enterprise is resources. Nonprofits live in a looking-glass universe where money doesn’t act like money. It forces nonprofit leaders to be extremely creative and resourceful to get the job done.

Don’t have big marketing budgets? Recruit a team of student volunteers to phone bank and promote events. Need great web content? Leverage relationships with companies for high-definition video cameras and let creative interns make content. 

Many management gurus talk about motivating people to where they would want to work for free. I wish I even had the option to pay! The best volunteer driven organizations, like the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival that utilize over 1000 volunteers, build a community with their volunteer base. It becomes the cool thing to do.

Motivating volunteers relies on trust, persuasion, a compelling mission, shared effort, and a clear understanding about why someone is motivated to act. The fundamentals of good management.

Long-Term Relationships
An entrepreneur friend once said that he was impressed with my patience and ability to balance the needs of many difficult and diverse stakeholders. Nonprofit leaders by definition have multiple masters. They walk a fine balance creating value for both the customer AND serving the donor, neither of which are homogeneous groups. 

Nancy Lublin of DoSomething.org makes a strong case for the marketing prowess of nonprofits. In an a review of her book in the Economist, she says that nonprofits focus on long-term relationship building based on "frequent contact, repeatedly saying thank you and sending updates through newsletters. This contrasts sharply with the one-off transactional approach to customers that is all too common in the business world."

Nonprofits live in a world of constraints that require us to draw upon a diverse range of abilities and constantly innovate. Don’t tell the business guys, but these are the high-skill high-touch abilities in highest demandThere is more than one way to earn your chops.

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