I have been traveling a lot recently and on approximately half of these trips I end up engaging in conversation with individuals who are sitting next to me.  Because I am traveling so frequently, I was upgraded for free to a first class seat for a cross-country trip and found myself sitting next to a high-level corporate executive for a large industrial services company.  He was flying to their annual corporate meeting but we spent much of the flight discussing nonprofits and service. 

He first said that his company was thinking about doing some morale-boosting community service.  “Awesome,” I said, “I know of some good causes.”  He was also looking to joining a board in the near future.  “Great,” I said, “let me know how I can help.”  This led him to start on what the nonprofit sector could learn from the corporate sector.  He stated, “nonprofits need more discipline and more professionalism”.  Sitting on my hands, I asked him how much his organization was spending on their annual meeting.  He stated a number that was beyond astronomical.  Hearing this, I was reaffirmed of the obvious differences in his sector and mine.  That didn’t stop me from going into a million things he could do to streamline his annual meeting, how he could turn his meeting into a real opportunity to support good causes and save on the bottom line.  He stated, verbatim, “That will never fly.  Nonprofits may do potlucks but not us”. 

Last year I wrote an article for the Support Center for Nonprofit Management, restated in part below, on the same kind of mentality that was expressed by my seat mate.  I actually wrote the piece based on the three or more meetings a week I was having with displaced corporate managers that were looking to make a move to the nonprofit sector but conveying the feeling that nonprofits would be lucky to have them because they were from the corporate community.  At the same time, an early 2009 radio broadcast had some animated pundit in support of AIG upgrading their offices amidst the public crisis stating, “What are they supposed to do, sit at folding tables?!!!!” This immediately made me think of all the clients I have or the site visits I have done where the table of choice for the nonprofit organization is a folding table. Let’s call these organizations, “Folding Table” organizations.

I think corporate groups like the one of the corporate executive sitting next to me could really learn a great deal from “Folding Table Organizations”.  (FTO’s if we need another acronym.) FTO’s could impart the following few tidbits:

  • FTO’s do really make a dollar out of 15 cents. These groups, in many instances, have helped improve conditions in our most distressed communities, especially during this economic crisis. I think corporate CFO’s should shadow FTO financial people for a day. I am sure they would learn a great deal about how to maximize resources.
  • FTO’s are often the best are forming real win-win partnerships. For all we hear from foundations on how CBOs should partner more effectively, which is a goal that should always be perfected; follow a participant from a social service agency for a day. See how one participant will receive ESL classes one hour from one organization, a job counseling session from another organization the next hour and a physical check-up by a health clinic in hour three. Often this is through great partnerships which are brushed off or not talked of.
  • FTO’s could teach corporate America on a variety of subjects including diversity, organizational loyalty and non-financial reward best practices. Spend a day observing an FTO from a human resource perspective and you will quickly realize that the levels in which groups are able to achieve in motivating their employees, many long-serving and from many different areas, to reach their difficult missions.

Now I am not suggesting that FTOs do not have their troubles, as they do and they are often immense. But, I do think that the often loud notion that FTO’s should feel lucky to be in the presence of corporate America or that corporations that live like FTOs are less successful are severely flawed viewpoints. It should be a reversed belief as I think the corporations of the world could certainly learn from FTOs.

I looked over at the corporate executive sitting next to me as I finished and noticed he was nodding off.  I hope someone on their side is awake.

Read more stories by John Brothers.