Non-Profit Organizations & Workflow: Doing More for the Cause

Anyone who has ever worked in a non-profit organization knows all too well that slim administration and operations budgets translate into hard work. I’m not talking about gleaming hospitals and health insurance companies that meet non-profit status criteria. I’m talking about the small and mid-size social services agencies, group homes, charitable missions and advocacy programs that provide invaluable services in this country and the NGOs that do similar work around the globe.

Non-profits are staffed by intelligent, educated, experienced, mission-driven and hard-working people. The salary structures and the nature of the work do not tend to attract people who are looking to make a buck, climb the corporate ladder and get out. Similarly, because the organization is not so much “selling” something, it provides services in the trenches with whatever resources happen to be at its disposal. Slim margins mean there is little investment in technology and innovation. Not because managers, leaders and the board of directors don’t want to or don’t see the value in it, they simply can’t afford radical investments in technology to automate some of the back-breaking work.

Improved Workflow Can Stand-In for Automation (for the time-being)

While a non-profit may not be able to afford new technology-enabled tools that would drastically reinvent their delivery systems, they can afford to emulate systems and work backwards. By visiting a large for-profit that provides similar services – as a soup kitchen may be to a successful restaurant chain – the non-profit manager can learn something about how automation and systems make restaurant work more efficient and satisfactory. It may be in the way that the customer is greeted and moved quickly to a table or in the way an order for food can include some customization and accommodate allergies and diet preferences. It may be in the way that money is handled on the back-end or in the way that supplies and inventory are managed.

Bringing these lessons back to the non-profit to model the current state and the future state so it looks and feels more like the automated solution is not only possible, everybody benefits and it costs little.

Analysing and Managing Workflow for Improvement Doesn’t Necessarily Involve Information Systems

In this day and age, much of what is said in the press and in workshops and books on the topic of managing business process and workflow is spoken by software developers and consultants who can improve workflow and automate processes using technology. Often, the approach leads to new, tailored systems. That is not – by definition – the only reason to engage in workflow improvements. Workflow and business process can and will improve by applying the fundamentals to a white-board and then implementing them using sound project management principles.

Change Means Disruption – Addressing the Beliefs that Maintain the Status Quo

By virtue of their budgets and scant IS/IT resources, non-profit agencies tend to resist innovation and change. It makes sense in the context of organizations that cannot afford to develop new processes in parallel and test-mode. “Too many people would suffer in the interim. Programs might grind to a halt. What if there were mistakes? The founder’s unique approach cannot be challenged. The board will never approve it. We can’t afford it!”

All of these are the beliefs that maintain the homeostasis of things – people, processes, outcomes – and, with care, they can be “entered” and challenged for the purpose of producing a better outcome. Working with a non-profit involves challenging sacred cows that are often very different from the sacred cows one encounters in a for-profit setting. Greater care has to be exercised in challenging them because drivers of behavior like beliefs, values, vision and mission are very strong and give way only when the organization can be assured that their purpose will be met. Making the case for doing more with less and producing better quality outcomes is the best bet. Secondarily, a higher-performing non-profit does, in fact, attract greater funding but that is always secondary to the mission.


One response to “Non-Profit Organizations & Workflow: Doing More for the Cause

  1. One difference between for-profit and non-profit cost/waste reduction is that non-profit labor is often free (volunteer) and plentiful, so a mechanization and computerization solutions would be less attractive. Some volunteer organizations might have a mission that includes organizing commitment and work time for volunteers specifically to employ them in gainful activity. Any effort to improve their efficiency would rub against their need to employ as many people as possible (for example, using an automated seed-to-sale greenhouse at the local garden co-op).

    Another difference between non-profits and for-profits is that the non-profits cannot take advantage of the economies of scale that make a mechanization or automation solution cost-effective to the for-profits (for example, a soup kitchen versus a restaurant chain – the kitchen can’t afford the automated computer system, the maintenance on it, or even the advanced kitchen equipment).

    As you mentioned, another difference between non-profits and for-profits is the commitment level and type of conviction that drives employee behavior. The non-profit employee does not have to be paid well to work well. What they do have to feel is that their work is valuable and valued. Replacing their labor with a software system while keeping them employed requires that they be retrained within the organization, but to do what? Nothing outside the mission of the organization, truly.

    One area that non-profits could use improvement is in quality control.

    Even for volunteer organizations that would avoid mechanization and software automation approaches to quality control, procedures could be developed (present state->future state) that improve quality control within those organizations.

    In a recent SCIAM article on the upcoming space race, the author’s mentioned the problems of near atmosphere EM radiation, and the potential of knocking all technology back to the 1950’s, before the integrated circuit and computers. Back then, efficiency in for-profits mattered a great deal, but the means to improve it involved time-motion studies, careful paper organization, and limited mechanization. The 50’s had a lot of job titles and roles that first-worlders in the 21st century would never do, except maybe in a volunteer organization that intended to keep people employed.

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