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.


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?” 


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  :)