How do we change culture?

I recently had the opportunity to join a few dozen influential leaders from across the country for a summit around this question, hosted by our good friends at the Foundation for Economic Education. Thousands of advocacy, educational, and ministry organizations around the nation struggle with the same question, framed in their own way.

One noteworthy consensus emerged among the participants at the summit: you cannot speak to culture with rational arguments alone; persuasion relies just as much on emotion, moral conviction, and powerful storytelling. Reason must be fused with relevance to carry lasting power.

It is why Polymath has always approached creative communication with an emphasis on stories and experience, rather than relying on gimmicks and clickbait to drive engagement for our partners. And it’s why the most talked about Super Bowl ads are those that tug on your heartstrings, or make you bellow with laughter.

“Reason must be fused with relevance to carry lasting power.”

But beyond the message itself, many nonprofits have struggled to make an impact because—somewhat ironically—their clarity of mission and lack of a competitive business environment gives the illusion that the work is straightforward; that there is no need for such things as a careful strategy, creative product development, and a well-crafted marketing funnel. You know, the things one must have to survive in a sink-or-swim business, but seem a far stretch when the most basic budgets and plans rely on achieving tight fundraising goals.

So there is one piece of advice I always give to nonprofits struggling to make a real impact: start thinking like a for-profit.

Thinking Like a For-Profit

We tend to see these as two completely different spheres, but the reality is that they are both subject to the same basic economic forces, and the path to growth and influence is similar. No matter what kind of enterprise you are leading, success depends on your ability to convince others that you really matter.

So, do you matter? Of course, you believe what you are doing is important, or you would be doing something else. So more specifically, to whom do you matter, and why? What reason are you giving the world to give you their time, attention, and money?

The best for-profit businesses demonstrate three skills that are critical for nonprofits to emulate.

1. Empathy

The first is empathy. This may seem odd, since it would appear that nonprofits have cornered the market on empathy, but I’m not just talking about altruism or compassion. I’m talking about a relentless pursuit of understanding the customer and their needs. What are their challenges, dreams, hopes, and fears? How do they make decisions, and where do they spend their time?  Perhaps you need to take an even further step back to figure out who your “customer” even is. Too often, our commitment to our ideas comes before our commitment to people, but it must always be the other way around.

“Too often, our commitment to our ideas comes before our commitment to people, but it must always be the other way around.”

2. Innovation

The second skill is innovation. It isn’t enough to understand the real felt needs of people; you must apply persistence and creativity to addressing them. The best businesses apply immense dedication to creating solutions and products that deliver real, concrete value to help them become happier, healthier, and wealthier—however those might be defined. Whatever you are trying to promote, consider how it might be packaged in an unexpected way to offer not just something people need, but something they want. Do this well, and you can break the reliance on donor contributions as the primary generator of financial financial resources.

3. Honesty

Lastly, great businesses demonstrate honesty in evaluating their own performance. They measure and track the indicators that matter, and when they’ve missed the mark, they candidly assess what went wrong and work toward a resolution. How do you know if you’re succeding or failing? Do your performance metrics measure the things that actually matter? wAre you willing to admit when something isn’t working, and do you have the courage to shut it down?

…Don’t let the label fool you: Too often, the “nonprofit” moniker creates an environment where this type of empathy, innovation, and honest feedback is neither expected nor demanded. Rather, the greatness of the work is determined by its commitment to the cause; its pure and laudable intentions. Vague mission statements are backed by equally nebulous strategies, but always executed with haste and fervor. Anecdotal testimonies replace KPIs as the final arbiter of a worthwhile investment.

To be sure, there are plenty of incredible nonprofit organizations who demonstrate these skills well. But without the stinging pain of an off-kilter profit and loss statement, or stock-sinking quarterly earnings report, it can become easy to let inefficiencies slide and effectiveness wane, until they are part of the institutional culture.

Thinking like a for-profit means recognizing that the greatness of your message alone is never enough. Changing culture isn’t just about getting your point across; it’s the story you tell, the value you deliver, and the experience you create.