Hidden Resources

Person To Person

Of course, as with any business, personnel changes can send you back to square one of the sales process. It's not uncommon for the turnover rate at nonprofits to be somewhat higher than you see at for-profit companies, and those staffing changes could affect your standing with the organization. New boards, new officers and even new elected officials (particularly in the case of government-funded nonprofits) can all have an impact on the operation.

"People come and go. Don't take it personally," says DeRocker. "People often come in on a platform that everything that's been done before is wrong, and you're one of those `wrong' things, so they clean house and you're out. But by the same token, a new administration may also be your chance to get in."

That's why it's a good idea to maintain a safe distance from the politics of the organization if you can. "If your being in business with a nonprofit is based on who you know as opposed to what you've done and what you're doing, remember that the people can change," DeRocker says. "If you've got nothing after that to hang your hat on, you're dead in the water. Even if you get to know and love the people, base your relationship on performance."

Another point to keep in mind when it comes to people is the issue of expertise. "Nonprofit staff members tend to have a different professional focus than you'd find in for-profit businesses," says Perks. Often, you'll be dealing with people whose expertise is in the mission of the organization, not necessarily in management, administration or whatever service you're providing.

"Many [staffers at nonprofits] may not come from professional business [backgrounds]," says Talisman. "They're there because they love what they're doing." Staffers are often focused on their programs rather than on efficiently administering their operation. For example, they may know they need a copy machine, but they have trouble determining which lease or purchase agreement is best for them.

Of course, what holds true for one nonprofit is not necessarily true for another. While some organizations are run by people who came up through the ranks at least partly because of their passion for the mission, others are run by professionals hired for their specific business expertise by an overseeing board. Some nonprofits give their staff members a significant degree of autonomy in decision-making; others make all but the most minute decisions by committee, which can be a cumbersome and frustrating process for a supplier.

Once decisions are made and the project is in motion, nonprofits tend to be less demanding than for-profit customers. Talisman has even seen her clients accept substandard work from other suppliers; rather than complain, they tolerate the low quality, pay the bill and--if the problem was serious enough--go elsewhere next time.

"There is often not the attention to performance a private company would demand," says DeRocker. Even so, he adds that he's seeing a tendency toward more accountability. "The better nonprofits are watching the store more closely. We find our clients are more results-oriented than they were even 10 years ago."

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This article was originally published in the January 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hidden Resources.

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