The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success

In his new book, The Non Nonprofit: For-Profit Thinking for Nonprofit Success, Steve Rothschild, former executive vice president of General Mills and founder and current board chair of Twin Cities RISE!, a Minnesota nonprofit that works to advance anti-poverty programs for low-income adults, offers a useful case study of the challenges and successes RISE! has experienced, with a view to providing a management guide for other nonprofit leaders.

The book is organized, a la Stephen Covey, into a chapter-by-chapter discussion of the "seven principles" of success, as defined by Rothschild: (1) have a clear and appropriate purpose; (2) measure what counts; (3) be market-driven; (4) create mutual accountability; (5) support personal empowerment; (6) create economic value from social benefit; and (7) be learning-driven. That Rothschild's seven "principles" aren't uniquely for-profit in provenance will be apparent to anyone who has spent time in the nonprofit sector. Indeed, after the first couple of chapters, Rothschild abandons his efforts to press that claim. But even though The Non Nonprofitfails to prove its thesis that uniquely for-profit principles are critical to nonprofit success the book succeeds on other levels.

It is, for example, a useful study of efforts to battle generational poverty in the greater Twin Cities region. There's also much to admire in the book's honest portrayal of the early difficulties that RISE! faced, the process the organization went through to identify its shortcomings, and the intelligent steps it took to overcome those obstacles.

Moreover, although the story of RISE! dominates, Rothschild includes thoughtful discussions of roughly a dozen other nonprofits College Summit, Playworks, and Common Ground, among them adding depth and detail to his discussion of the plight of the poor. And he provides rich discussions of topics such as empowerment, coaching, customer service, and socially innovative funding strategies. Much of this content is so good it wouldn't be out of place in a university-level nonprofit management course.

As a former executive at a Fortune 500 company, Rothschild has an avowed preference for big organizations. Indeed, he sees big business and its use of "large scale, well-financed operations to attack large-scale problems" as thebest organizational model for tackling persistent social ills. Rather than advancing effective smaller programs that can be replicated at will, Rothschild advocates for "scaling up" a limited number of organizations with a proven track record. To do that, he admits, requires money, and lots of it. "Even the most successful nonprofits, like Goodwill Industries and Habitat for Humanity," he writes, "have revenues [on par with] middle-sized businesses." If concentrating limited resources among fewer large nonprofits at the expense of smaller organizations moves us closer to our goal whether it's ending generational poverty, reforming public education, or providing quality health care to all well, so be it.

Even if that idea leaves you cold, The Non Nonprofitis well worth reading, both for the detailed account it provides of the evolution of RISE!, as well as Rothschild's insights into other organizations that share its mission. Make no mistake, however: Rothschild has larger ambitions. Indeed, his aim is nothing less than to shift the nonprofit management conversation from an obsession with costs to a discussion of benefits; from a narrow focus on inputs and outputs to an embrace of outcomes; from short-term fixes to long-term solutions; from philanthropy to investment. In this respect, and despite its shortcomings, The Non Nonprofitis a valuable contribution to the best thinking about nonprofits available today, and it deserves to be read by any thoughtful person committed to a career in the nonprofit sector.

Gary Jaworski