NonProfits: Of Identity, Contributors and Volunteers

I have started reading Peter Drucker’s “Managing the Non-Profit Organization”.  Three things strike me in his preface.

1. The Identity of Non-Profit

The first thing Drucker does is identify a fundamental difference between “non-profits” against other identities.  He argues that “non-profits” do not have a clear identity.  Their identity as a “non-profit” or “non-government” merely says what they are not.  It does not say what they are.

He writes, “It is not that these institutions are “non-profit,” that is, that they are not businesses. It is also not that they are “non-governmental.”  It is that they do something very different from either business or government.  Business supplies, either goods or services.  Government controls.  A business has discharged its task when the customer buys the product, pays for it, and is satisfied with it.  Government has discharged its function when its policies are effective.  The “non-profit” institution neither supplies goods or services nor controls.  Its “product” is neither a pair of shoes nor an effective regulation.  It’s product is a changed human being.  The non-profit institutions are human-change agents.  Their “product” is a cured patient, a child that learns, a young man or woman grown into a self-respecting adult; a changed human life altogether.” (Drucker, 1990 p.xiv)

In many non-profits that I know, people often see themselves “doing things” e.g. attend to X people, dispense $Y of help, organize Z events.  This process approach to things appears to be influenced by the business world.  The way in which some non-profits are funded (i.e. by specific outputs) may also have contributed to this.

However, if the “product” of a non-profit is a changed human being”, then they ought to see and communicate their work in terms of the (positive) change that they bring about in people.  The ‘bricklayer story’ was a favorite of my former Mayor who told it umpteen times to impress upon our colleagues that as a bricklayer one can see himself as: 1. laying bricks; 2. building a wall; 3. building a religious institution; or 4. doing the work of God (whoever God may be).

For-profits may argue that they too work towards some larger goal(s) e.g. Zappos seeks to “Deliver happiness”, but a key difference as Drucker argues is that a “changed human being” is not necessarily the outcome they pursue to the end.  The more that non-profits can relate to this deeper sense of purpose, the clearer they will be about their mission.

2. Making Contributors out of Donors

Drucker says, “It is much more than just getting extra money to do vital work.  Giving is necessary above all so that the non-profits can discharge the one mission they all have in common: to satisfy the need of the American people for self-realization, for living out our ideals, our beliefs, our best opinion of ourselves.  To make contributors out of donors means that the American people can see what they want to see – or should want to see – when each of us looks at himself or herself in the mirror in the morning: someone who as a citizen takes responsibility.  Someone who as a neighbor cares.” (Drucker, 1990 p.xvii)

How often have we viewed sponsorship and donation from the perspective of the receiving party?  The focus is often on ourselves as receivers: we appeal to the world to give us that something we need to do our work.  But in doing so, how much do we help people to see themselves as part of the cause, to develop ownership and advocacy beyond just providing money or resources?

A major shift in my last non-profit was to turn the focus away from ourselves and our projects, to the needs of the community and the aspirations of potential contributors.  We stopped explicitly asking people to donate to the specific programs we created (even though we never turn down a kind offer :)).  Instead, we believe that everyone has an innate passion for some good cause; our job is not to compete with their inner cause and prove that ours is more worthy of their time and money but to see how we could help them unlock their innate passion.  As we supported multiple causes in the community, we saw ourselves as a “social broker”.  We guide people along different pathways, even customizing new programs for some organizations.  We believe that if people want to contribute time, we should help them achieve it rather than pester them for money.  We even refer volunteers and donors to other organizations if we feel that they can better meet their aspirations.

As Drucker notes, non-profits have one mission in common, “to satisfy the need of people for self-realization, for living out their ideals, their beliefs, their best opinion of themselves.”  The more we appreciate this, the more we fulfill our purpose in society as non-profits.

3. Volunteers as a Special Breed

“Precisely because volunteers do not have the satisfaction of a paycheck, they have to get more satisfaction out of their contribution.  They have to be managed as unpaid staff.” (Drucker, 1990 p.xviii)

I feel strongly for this point, as I think many non-profits overlook their responsibility to their volunteers.  Many non-profits whom I worked with, see their volunteers more as “free labor”.  Particularly because our Education Ministry has a requirement for every student to clock certain numbers of “community hours”, deploying this “free labor” is seen as a matter of “willing buyer willing seller”.  That is, the students need to fulfill their “community hours”, and non-profits have labor needs so it’s a fair match.

Again, this comes down to how we see point #2 above, and how we see our role in helping these students achieve self-realization rather than fulfill academic requirements.  But more than that, I agree with Drucker that as non-profits we have a responsibility to ensure we give people a fair, if not greater, “return” (in this case non-monetary) for their contribution to the cause.  At times, this can feel like a heavy responsibility to bear, but the more we can think in these terms, the more we serve our cause by cultivating long-term contributors and advocates for it.


Drucker, P. F. (1990). Managing the non-profit organization: Principles and practices. HarperCollins.


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