In Defense of Nonprofit Business Tactics to Preserve Cultures - Part 1

Author: Dustin Hall

Dustin Hall also published on this topic on

How Product Management skills and agile business tactics can help a nonprofit organization's mission

My first work after Product Manager School was five months of consulting at a nonprofit.  I quickly learned that the differences between nonprofit and for-profit companies don’t really impact the development of the products and services themselves. Soon after meeting the CoDA team, I knew that the skills I’d been developing in school could be put to good use in this unexpected new setting.  

Although not trying to appeal to investors, nonprofits have to convince granting bodies and donors that they are worthy of resources, which means they often have to answer tough questions about their goals, business, and plans. Nonprofits still have to answer the question, “Do our services fit our audience?” a question Product Managers are expected to answer. Depending on the size of a nonprofit, there may not be the staff to lead product and services development full time. These tips are intended to coach nonprofits on how to put their services through the rigor that most startups demand of their own innovative services and products today.

These were just few of the assumptions I started with:

  • Nonprofits are just businesses that don’t pay taxes
  • Nonprofits shouldn’t seem too businessy
  • Cultural Preservation, being academic, needs to be completely open access-y

This post has two layers to it: On a high level, laying out how the new Product Management skills I learned in school could (and should) be applied to my work in a nonprofit, and then specifically, how agile business tactics, in general, could help this organization’s mission to help save endangered cultures through digital preservation and responsible sharing.

To say that “things didn’t go as planned” after finishing Product Management School would be an understatement, but also an overstatement about whether there could ever really be a plan at all.  I thought that my (work experience) + (new training) would equal sufficient qualifications, and therefore I’d waltz into a new job in any new company.  After two months of threshing about in the Bay Area’s turbulent waters of cover letters, interviews and networking events, I began to realize that finding a job wasn’t straightforward like a math equation, but closer to alchemy and magic.  Luckily, I soon found a handhold on an unexpected shore: a nonprofit comprised of four people.  And so began the creative commingling of my newly formed business tactics in service of this organization’s social mission.


The company, the products, and the clients

CoDA, was sponsored to partner with other organizations, including WSU’s Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation (CDSC) in creating Mukurtu Content Management System, an open source platform focused on supporting the unique needs of native communities; groups whose content is sacred, irreplaceable if ever lost or damaged, and which requires access protocols that change from tribe to tribe based on their unique, particular traditions.  Rote solutions like Private/Public access static websites, storing content in Dropbox or Google drive, and using Facebook groups to engage members are not options for these communities.  No user agreement would ever hand ownership of these precious knowledge collections over to another company or any other institutional body outside of the tribal community for what matters. These are other times in history, when ancient communities have reclaimed their identity and are taking ownership of their heritage to save it from loss or misappropriation. I was thrilled to be part of such an endeavor, of exploring ways in which the “business ways” could be out in service of such a noble cause.

From the start, I was never conflicted about putting Product Management skills to work for CoDA’s mission. Now, forgive my “businessy” terminology henceforth, it is functional to tell my experience from my perspective. Like many other companies, this organization had a product and they needed to find out if there was a client segment for it, how big that market was, learn whether existing clients liked using it, and to prioritize which features to develop or change.  Before long, I learned about the dissenting voices within this space.  I learned of the conflict nonprofits feel about seeming too businessy.  I experienced well-meaning push back on how to convey that we were in fact selling packages and services to people: Would our website be mission or product focused?  Would we have prices for our products on the website, or through inquiry only?  Do we do sales calls?  Do we have a BUY NOW button?  Should we be revenue driven or grant driven? I also learned that dealing with archaeological or cultural content is traditionally something linked to academia, and that there is a trend to make all research content open access (see for example the Open Context initiative).  There was this article about how all digital research data should live in open context databases, accessible to everyone.  In fact, our company was called out as one example of a company trying to somehow “profit off” of the cultural content of others.  All of a sudden the expectation to be nimble and responsive in this nonprofit sounded a lot like the stories I hear about friends in their ‘more traditional’ early stage startups.

Think sustainable. Profitability is necessary.

Confronting the question about whether it ever be a problem for a nonprofit to act like a business, I learned that Kaiser Permanente and the Mayo Clinic are nonprofits, two companies that some people may assume are (even implicitly by not considering the point) regular for profit businesses.  Then, a financial advisor relayed me a colloquial adage: “Nonprofits are just businesses that don’t pay taxes.”  I think what they meant by that is that any company that ignores focusing on the profitability, and therefore the sustainability, of their organization, for the fear of seeming gauche, risks the long term sustainability of the organization altogether.  It might seem obvious to anyone who already understands the notion of Conscious Capitalism, capital is the red blood cells that keep the body/company alive, but the purpose of living isn’t to make red blood cells, it is to live with purpose as in Ed Freeman’s quote “We need red blood cells to live (the same way a business needs profits to live), but the purpose of life is more than to make red blood cells (the same way the purpose of business is more than simply to generate profits).” 
A nonprofit wears this concept a bit more on its sleeve, although B-Corps and other values driven businesses realize the same thing.  In this view the quite direct criticism that this nonprofit was profiting off of the culture of others was not only unfair and incorrect, but actually a lot easier to address and reconcile (if only there weren’t so many academics involved!)  As a matter of fact, the mission of this company is to encourage the implementation of a content management system that fosters complete tribal ownership of their cultural content, forever. Compare and contrast for instance the above mentioned Open Context with the Sustainable Heritage Network initiative, Mukurtu CMSLocal Contexts. This company’s list of web hosting, data services and CMS training packages – the things we should actually sell – are our response to the most frequent requests received by communities interested in preserving their cultures digitally but based on their own rules and protocols, not those of others.

Reassured that I could show up to work each day and act like some sort of Product Manager and Business-Guy All-Arounder, it was time to try some things and see what worked.  In Part 2 of this post, to be published next week, I will describe 6 product management principles that I am adapting to this nonprofit reality.