blurring organisational definitions

A few years ago, Craig Brown, Paul Steele and I went for a long walk along the beach at Ocean Grove towards Barwon Heads. The focus of the conversation (at least the bits I recall) was about the nature of organisations, in particular the emerging unhelpfulness of the distinctions between so-called for-profit organisations (usually referred to as businesses) and so-called not-for-profits (NFPs) usually called NGOs, charities, third sector, community organisations etc.

A couple of years before that, Paul and I had set up an organisation called Catalyst Innovations (CI). Our work in CI ran along two tracks:

  1. Working alongside business people as ‘vocational coaches’, stimulating a view of commercial activity that embraced ‘doing good’ as core rather than an optional extra or ‘bolt on activity’ of profit making ventures.
  2. Working alongside those in the NFP sector to facilitate greater commercial rigour towards financial sustainability in their organisations.

Our ocean beach conversation spiraled in on the common elements of any organisation – the need for a clear reason for being and the necessity of financial sustainability among others. Overlayed on these common needs was the dual increases in the number of people in business who were sticking up their hands to say they wanted their jobs to be more than a vehicle to get to a pay cheque, and the numbers of people working in the community sector who were realising that commercial discipline and innovative thinking was going to be key to the successful implementation of the vision.

The conversation has moved quickly – as a lot of things are doing these days.

This month’s Ethical Investor magazine is full of suggestions that the lines are being blurred. A couple of weeks ago Mohan and I met with Denis Tracey from Swinburne University. His colleague from the Asia-Pacific Centre for Philanthropy and Social Impact, Dr Michael Liffman has a piece that argues, “The boundaries between for-profit and not-for-profit organisations are blurring as both entrepreneurs, social and otherwise, seek innovate solutions to society’s needs.”

Simon Fjell’s article begins,

“Entrepreneurs are rapidly breaking down the traditional boundaries between business and charity to solve the world’s problems. … This model of change is called ‘social entrepreneurship’. The idea has struck a responsive chord. It is a phrase well suited to our times. It combines the passion of a social mission with an image of business-like discipline, innovation, and determination.”

Among the exponents of this new way of operating is Nic Frances, who I remember as the chief of the Brotherhood here in Melbourne and who is now making his mark as the founder of cool nrg. In his book (which I haven’t read yet) called The End of Charity, he reportedly argues for wholesale change to a system in which we compartmentalize that which we do ‘for love’ and that which we do ‘for money’: charity and business.

What does all mean? It means that the world of work is changing. We are moving into a time where the opportunity for people to integrate their passion to help create a better future for the world does not have to be separated from the need to earn a living. At Ergo we call these new workplaces ‘vocational communities’.

There is still a long way to go though. Despite all I have said and referenced above, most company shareholders are still in it primarily for a financial gain and legislation dictates that company directors make decisions to that end. The equivalent in the NFP world is that organisation’s members are in it primarily to make a difference in the lives of people, and they expect organisational leaders to be motivated by the same.

But things will change, faster than we imagine.

3 thoughts on “blurring organisational definitions

  1. Heya Col – I just finished The End of Charity – was a great read, really got the mind ticking away. A lot in there reminded me of MBO (and I guess now Ergo) – both ideals and culture.

  2. It is a good reminder for me to order a copy … although I am on the verge of a few weeks annual leave, during which time I have promised myself I will only read fiction. Hope your travelling is energising you.

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