The Non-Profit Identity

Classes are in full swing, and school work takes up 8 to 10 hours each day on average!

I enjoy studying, which is not a startling discovery ;)  However, compared to 12 years ago when I last went to school, I realize my motivation to learning is more externally oriented now.  In simpler terms, it means I don’t enjoy studying for the sake of it.  There are people who do, and I suspect I used to as well.  However, 12 years of work experience has allowed me to experience what knowledge can and cannot do, and the limits of applying what we learn in school.

Now, I enjoy studying when I can see the knowledge serving as a means to a larger goal.  For me, that larger goal is contributing to society in a meaningful way e.g. helping people and making the world a little better.

Because of this orientation, I am more interested in the application of theories in real-life situations, rather than the theories themselves.  Of course, understanding a theory in depth is important, but unless we find practical applications in life it will always remain a nice-looking theory.  At least this is how I see it :)

A lot of what we learn allows us to see what is not working (e.g. what a bad situation looks like), and what we need to strive towards (e.g. what a good situation looks like), but often there is relatively less knowledge about how to successfully achieve the change.  This is summed up in my current favorite maxim, “We know what bad looks like, and what good needs to be, but how do we get there?” 

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One practical application that I would like to focus on is the application of knowledge in the context of non-profits.  I don’t think my interest in non-profits is unique, but for me this focus has a personal motivation.  Having been involved in the non-profit sector for the last four years, I have grown attached to the purpose and calling.  My last job involved running an organization to (a) assist people in financial distress get back on their feet, (b) help the unemployed identify appropriate training and fit into new jobs, (c) strengthening communities to create positive social change (e.g. community self-help, volunteerism and corporate social responsibility).  In that capacity, I worked closely with many community partners (mostly non-profits), and found many great friends and like minds.

Through that experience, I learned that non-profits are unique organizations, having very different social missions from say businesses.  Yet, a lot of non-profits today are run on business models developed for for-profits.  Without a deeper understanding about what is unique about non-profits and why this necessitates new models, or adaptations from current business models, non-profits will always struggle to balance the lens of the for-profit world versus their non-profit missions.  I shall loosely call this “The Non-Profit Identity”.

Drawing this back to my current learning in school, I would like to pay more attention in finding the significance and relevance in what I learn in the context of non-profits.  Sometimes, the theories, concepts and models that I come across can apply equally well to both non-profits and for-profits; sometimes they don’t.  How can we be more conscious and deliberate about that knowledge?

At the same time, I am currently reading Peter Drucker’s “Managing the Nonprofit Organization – Principles and Practices” (1990, Harper Collins Publishers).  It’s a great book, but my progress is not very fast.  This is because I slow down to think about how it relates to my previous experiences and the non-profit contets that I am aware of.  As I do so, I hope to share in this blog some of what I learn (in the book and also in my school work) and my broader reflections  :)

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