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Investors or Donors?

In the course of running my branding agency, Studio Two, we’ve worked with for-profit and non-profit clients alike. Many of our clients are startups, or entrepreneurial businesses that come to us for assistance in defining their message and identity. This is true for both sectors – there are entrepreneurs in the non-profit world, though we tend to not call them that. Which gets me thinking about semantics.

Entrepreneurs start up new businesses based on creativity, new technologies and new ideas. In the non-profit world, these same people are called “innovators” or a “visionaries” or (usually behind their backs) “crazy”…. But seriously, why is it any less entrepreneurial to start up a new theater company or research organization than a dot-com business? And what’s in a name anyway – why would someone “want” to be called an Entrepreneur?

I think that it is a question worth asking. In the United States, where government support for the arts and for most non-profit business sectors is very limited or non-existant, the act of choosing to spend one’s energies on a challenging venture for the social good requires significant motivation – which is good. Not every idea will be successful and the Darwinian aspects of the free market has a role to play here. The word “entrepreneur” offers some clues to how one might choose to act in the process:

  • Entrepreneurs seek out investors and venture capital to pursue their vision
  • Entrepreneurs are compelled to draft business plans and budget projections
  • Entrepreneurs work diligently to hone their “pitch” and define their message and product
  • Entrepreneurs have to focus on defining and reaching their target markets quickly and efficiently
  • Entrepreneurs often have the idea of scalability built into their business model
  • Entrepreneurs will “pivot” their plan if one idea becomes more successful than another.

If you look around at your non-profit organization, whether well-established or very new, do the above concepts apply? Should they? I think they should – but with a twist. Let’s look at some of the differences and possibilities in the way we use language in the non-profit sector.

  • Non-Profits seek out grants and donors to pursue their vision
  • Non-Profits are compelled to draft strategic plans and budget projections
  • Non-Profits work diligently to hone their mission
  • Non-Profits have to focus on defining and reaching their target markets efficiently and repeatedly
  • Non-Profits often are constrained by the focus of their mission or context
  • Non-Profits generally stay tightly focused on their core “product” despite performance

So here’s the idea. What if you called your donors “investors”? What if you prepared a business plan instead of a strategic plan? What if you considered ways your organization could “pivot” based on its programming strengths and weaknesses?

I’m sure that many of you reading this already do – there are many innovative, nimble minds at work in the world’s great cultural and social organizations. Just for a moment, though, consider switching up the language. Call yourself an entrepreneur. Consider talking to your lead donor about her investment in your organization. Hone your elevator pitch.

Something interesting might happen. If you’d like to talk about it some more – contact me. I’m really interested in how it changes my thinking to simply change a few words and see how they feel.