What Game Are You Playing?


When it comes to playing chess, you need to understand the game if you are going to be successful. You are not going to win at chess if you follow the rules for checkers — even though they are both played on a board with alternating colored squares, both have pieces you strategically move around, and in both games you can “take” someone else’s pieces if you are smart enough to make the right moves. Sounds pretty similar, right? . . .

Except, the games are really quite different.

So it is with nonprofit organizations. In some regards, nonprofits may look like a for-profit organization or possibly even a public organization — there are certainly some similar components and concepts — and yet the games are really quite different. The only way to be consistently successful is to understand the intent and specific rules of the game before you. So how is the nonprofit “game” different?

1) Nonprofit leaders are actually playing two games at once.

Because the beneficiaries of a nonprofit organization rarely cover the full cost of the program or service provided, nonprofits have to simultaneously play a second (and sometimes a third or fourth) game to fill the gap between what it costs to provide a service and the reimbursement received. The second game not only requires very different skills and activities than the first game, but also . . .

2) The players in the second game often want a say in the rules of the first.

A “players” in the second game — let’s call it “Fill the Gap” — may choose to negotiate. “I’ll give you four pieces to fill the gap, however you can only use them in the spot I identify.” Now as grateful as the nonprofit leader is that someone is willing to play Fill the Gap, the identified spot may or may not be the area of greatest need.

3) The intent of the game is different.

The financial bottom line is not the goal in the nonprofit game. It is a condition for sustainability, but not the ultimate measure of success. Success at a for-profit exercise equipment company is based on the number of machines sold — the bottom line — not on whether the people who buy the machines go on to change their behavior and become healthy. In nonprofits, the “transaction” is part of the process but not the ultimate mission.

I could go on, but you get the picture. So why should you care? If you are a leader, chances are you are or will serve on a nonprofit board, you financially support one or more nonprofits, you or someone you know has benefited from the work of a nonprofit, and/or your community is impacted by the nonprofits in your midst. As a leader, your opinions matter — people are looking to you for guidance, and if you are going to provide guidance, it is helpful to understand the game. Nonprofits should undoubtedly be held to a high standard . . . just not the rules of a different game.

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