February 9, 2010

How Working at a Nonprofit is Like Working at the NFL

Former Bridgespan Partner Wayne Luke examines the parallels between working for a nonprofit and the NFL, having experienced both.

By: Wayne Luke

(This weblog post originally appread on the Harvard Business Review website.)

The last of the celebratory confetti has been cleared from the stands in Sun Life Stadium in Miami. But watching the game brought to my mind some interesting parallels between working at nonprofit organizations and working in the NFL — probably because I've experienced both. (Sadly, I didn't play. I worked in the physically safer confines of the front office.)

A sense of mission is critical. The nonprofit world is driven by purpose and mission. People see and seize on opportunities to create positive changes that are bigger than themselves. In this year's Super Bowl, many fans — even fans of other teams — were inextricably drawn to rooting for the New Orleans Saints. The Saints were clear underdogs, but fans saw a team driven by a sense of mission. They saw a group of superb athletes who wanted to bring a sense of joy, unity, and recovery to a city devastated only a few years ago by a massive hurricane. A win by the Saints was a calling, not just an objective — a calling that caused each player to perform at a level none of them individually could have thought possible. The result? Victory!

Great talent isn't always enough, but it helps. Many nonprofit organizations have the deck stacked against them. The difficulty of raising funds in the current economic environment and the unprecedented level of need for those they serve is staggering. But through adaptability and resourcefulness they still find a way to deliver. So it is with Indianapolis Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning. He's not the most fleet of foot. He doesn't have the biggest or the best offensive line. He doesn't benefit from a strong running game. But Peyton is smart. He knows how to adapt in challenging situations, and he usually finds a way to deliver. No, all that wasn't enough to win him another Super Bowl ring this year, but it got him closer than lesser quarterbacks would have achieved with the same team.

Intense devotion to the client is a must. The NFL is maniacally devoted to its fans. It does more than provide entertainment; it fosters a sense of pride and community, and it allows people to feel better about themselves and their circumstances. Every nonprofit organization looks to instill that same sense of devotion — or at least they should. The questions are the same as for the NFL: Who are we serving? How can we enrich their experiences with us? What can we do to help them not only feel served but genuinely cared for?

Today, the Saints are marching in New Orleans. Indianapolis is committed to adapting, adjusting, and earning another shot at the championship. And fans everywhere feel encouraged. A city is changed, another city is even more resolved, and those served are moving positively forward to what lies ahead.

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