Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Business Trip


A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri

Introduction: An article in a management journal that does not leave you with a headache! Development writing in a management journal! Something on the development scene in the US of A being relevant to India! The paper “Should Non-Profits Seek Profits” by William Foster and Jeffrey Bradach in the Harvard Business Review of February 2005 was all these things, and would qualify as a must-read to those like me who have never seen an NGO run a successful income generating venture and wonder why this is so, and why so many continue to want to do so.

The Situation: Apparently, today it is routine for non-profit organizations (read NGOs) to run a business venture and most believe that earned income will play an important role in bolstering an organization’s future revenues. Revenue generating initiatives are being launched or considered in almost every non-profit domain, and a flood of publications, events and experts have sprung up, including how-to books with titles like “Selling Social Change (Without Selling Out)”. The Yale School of Management, in a paper entitled “Enterprising Non-Profits: Revenue Generation in the Non-Profit Sector” reports that half to two-thirds of the ventures they examined were profitable or breaking even – a claim that Foster and Bradach viciously trash by casting doubts on the sampling and enquiry methodology and the analysis – have inter-university rivalries replaced the cold war?

Why is this so? First, the obvious – given the way philanthropy (i.e. funding) is practiced today, mostly small short-lived grants restricted to specific uses that are hard and frustrating to attract, the allure of earned income is understandable because it comes with no strings attached. Second, the general enthusiasm for business in the booming 1990s percolated into the non-profit sector, with managers wanting to be active entrepreneurs rather than passive bureaucrats and with organizations keen to be viewed as disciplined, businesslike and innovative to stakeholders. And third, financial self-sufficiency is a goal to non-profits and earned income is a means to attaining ‘sustainability’.

Skepticism! Foster and Bradach claim that there are reasons for skepticism; that few ventures actually make money, that most ventures are badly evaluated, with potential financial returns exaggerated and challenges routinely discounted, and that commercial ventures can distract non-profit managers from their core social missions, and even subvert those missions. Earned income ventures, they say, have a role in the non-profit sector, but unrealistic expectations are distorting decisions, wasting precious resources and leaving important social needs unmet. They conducted a survey (and a fair bit of effort goes into explaining how their sampling methodology, etc., unlike Yale’s, is correct and the results therefore applicable) that indicated that 71 percent of ventures were unprofitable, 24 percent profitable and 5 percent breaking even. Of the profitable, half did not fully account for indirect costs. “Simply put,” they conclude, “there is every reason to believe that the lion’s share of earned income ventures do not succeed in generating revenues beyond their costs.”

The disadvantages of non-profits: Running a business is challenging under the best of circumstances, and only 39 percent of small businesses are profitable. The odds are stacked even higher against non-profits because –
· Conflicting priorities – non-profits focus on both financial and non-financial concerns, such as paying a ‘living wage’ (I think this means not squeezing your employees sufficiently), hiring from some disadvantaged pool of people, pricing products lower so that they are affordable to low-income groups, or offering products that are ‘better’ or ‘healthier’ than market norms – all appropriate social objectives, but they put non-profits at a disadvantage in a highly competitive market.
· Lack of business perspective – non-profits tend to overlook the difference between revenues and profits, unremarkable when revenues are in the form of grants that have a negligible cost attached to raising them but critical in the viability of a business venture. They also invariably do not include the cost of holding inventory, or indirect costs, or overheads, or top management time, in their costing structure. Start-up costs, too, tend to be overlooked as these are invariably met from philanthropic funding and thus leave the organization without investors clamouring for returns.
· Philanthropic capital and escalation of commitment – when they realize that a venture is unprofitable, managers rarely pull the plug and instead opt to throw good money after bad in the hope of turning the venture around and thus avoiding the embarrassment of failure.

A question of mission: A cold look at any venture will conclude that it won’t yield any real revenues – does this mean that all should be abandoned? Foster and Bradach feel that a venture can be attractive without breaking even if it contributes to the core mission of the organization (the example they give is of a catering operation for an organization that works on training the unemployed, in which the primary objective is to provide valuable on-the-job training). Research reveals that many ventures fail the mission as well as the financial test (often the two compete with each other), and the lure of potential profits tend to distort an impartial evaluation of a venture’s mission contribution. A good assessment of a venture’s mission contribution would return the non-profit sector to its fundamental principles, as non-profits are non-profits because the marketplace does not take adequate care of the needs they address.

In conclusion: The situation in India is, no doubt, different. There are donor organizations with a long-term perspective and an interest in seeing a non-profit organization develop. Many Indian non-profits, too, are highly capable organizations with a clear sense of mission and an ability to understand what contributes to this and what does not. And yet, successful income generating ventures in the NGO sector are few (I have yet to see one) for the reasons outlined above and some more – an inability to distinguish between money to the community and money to the organization and an ability to attract only people like me who are genetically unable to do business (else they would!) come to mind. Happily, many do pass the mission test.

Acronyms / Jargon Watch
HBR Harvard Business Review
Mission Core objectives of an organization
Non-profits The equivalent of non-governmental organizations

“Should Non-Profits Seek Profits”, William Foster and Jeffrey Bradach, Harvard Business Review of February 2005
“Enterprising Non-Profits: Revenue Generation in the Non-Profit Sector”, Cynthia Massarski and Samantha Beinhacker, The Yale School of Management - The Goldman Sachs Foundation partnership on Non-profit Ventures

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