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What For-Profits Can Learn From Non-Profits

What For-Profits Can Learn from Non-Profits

I recently joined the board of a non-profit organization whose mission is to help other non-profits do their best work.

This got me to thinking about how non-profits differ from for-profit businesses (and not just in making a profit, or not).

While it may seem contrary to the whole idea of maximizing profits and providing value for shareholders, I believe creating a sustainable business model depends on an organization’s ability to truly serve its users. To create real human value.

Is it not possible to bring value to shareholders and exist to serve a purpose, cause, or mission that puts profit into perspective? Or to build a community of employees that share a set of core values and believe in something that drives the organization toward greatness?

This is where non-profits stand out versus most traditional for-profit companies.


Non-profits, in order to maintain their status, have a level of transparency applied to them that makes sure success (in the form of funding and other resources) are applied directly to their ‘customers’.

This is a really important distinction.

To be successful, every non-profit operates by putting the needs of the end-user ahead of financial gain. Their work begins with what a person or a community of people needs in order to live better, be healthier, find a voice, escape persecution, be educated (and the list goes on and on).

Without fulfilling the needs of the humans they serve, they simply don’t (and can’t) exist.

Established brands and start-ups alike should consider focusing on how to make life better (in some differentiated way) for people, including their own community of employees and the neighborhoods in which they operate.


Some for-profit brands are REALLY good at clearly stating (and existing to fulfill) their purpose. These modern brands are behaving like a non-profit and absolutely put their customers and users first.

Patagonia is a great example of a brand that is living its mission to Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

I also appreciate Chipotle’s behavior around Food with Integrity – their Cultivate Festival brings people together to raise awareness around sustainable food practices.

Google’s stated purpose is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally meaningful and accessible”. From Search to Maps to E-mails and beyond, they’ve delivered humbling breakthroughs (and revenue) around that purpose. That being said, they also brought us Google Glass… without asking us if we even wanted it.

Point being, even extremely successful brands misstep and forget to put their users first. Glass was simply ‘cool technology’ being pushed forward without fulfilling a true need.


Please pause for a minute and think about what’s happening at your company. Notice if the latest and greatest products and services are being driven forward by features and pricing and ‘cool stuff’ or if they are truly improving the lives of the people who will be voting for them (with their wallet, their behaviors and their loyalty).

It’s only becoming easier for technologies or processes to be copied by competition. What no one can copy is your passion to do a better job surprising and delighting users.

If you do that better than the rest, the profit and shareholder value parts should follow quite nicely.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. Extremely insightful essay. It’s a shame this message has gotten lost in todays high-tech, for-profit fray where analytics and metrics carry more weight than the end users those numbers attempt to portray. Thank you for the reminder that business is about humans and relationships, and to prioritize anything else ahead of that jeopardizes a company’s sustainability. A refreshing take, and a lovely read at the end of the work day! Thanks so much!

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