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It’s on every non-profit leader’s bingo card: a much-sought-after new board member from the corporate sector. But once they are recruited, they want to shake things up. “Be more entrepreneurial,” they say. “Why can’t you think like a business?”

While I agree non-profits should always be looking to new sources of inspiration beyond their sector, I find this mindset so tiring. Non-profits (and governments, for that matter) are not businesses, nor should they aspire to be. In fact, in the absence of modernized employment-equity legislation, it’s often non-profits that do the work of calling out corporations for their anti-labour and anti-environmental activities. Yet we’re constantly asked to follow the corporate sector’s lead, while our own knowledge, values and practices are rarely recognized as valuable.

I believe that businesses have the opportunity – and the responsibility – to be drivers of social change. If corporate leaders are ready, I think they can learn a lot from the non-profit sector.

Here are some places to start.

Your mission and values should be core to your operations.

To motivate people to take action, you must tell a powerful story with a clear call to action. Non-profits know this more than most, and the good ones use their mission and values to drive their decision-making, mobilize around systemic injustices and build lasting relationships with donors and supporters.

The same is true in the corporate world. A useful product isn’t enough; to create connections with audiences, your company must have a compelling reason for its existence beyond making money. How does your company see its role in society? How does it challenge the existence of social inequities, both internally and externally? Can your workers afford to eat and pay rent? Is the chief executive making 100 times more than the lowest-paid worker? How is it making meaningful progress on its stated commitments? If employees and customers are confident that their own values align with those of your company, there exists potential for an enduring and reciprocal relationship.

This mission can’t just be a marketing technique. I’ve seen how ineffective that approach can be – even in the non-profit sector. People must trust that your stated values are actually embedded in your operations and not just some nice words appearing in a press release or on a website. In this age of social media, companies that don’t practise what they preach will quickly be revealed and made to pay a big price in the court of public opinion.

Treat your workers as if they’re essential because they are.

Businesses that create supportive work environments are publicly celebrated, attract and retain top talent, and minimize turnover. Yet I constantly see corporations advocate against the very policies that could strengthen their operations, such as paid sick days, a livable minimum wage and modernized employment-equity legislation.

Of course, the non-profit sector still has work to do in this regard, but I’ve seen many organizations excel. Providing benefits from the first day of employment, creating systems for pay transparency and reducing gaps between the lowest-paid employees and senior leadership are all excellent ways to start.

Next, leaders must recognize that staff teams are affected by the oppression that’s rampant in our society and that they possess incredible skills and knowledge that are often devalued in contemporary workplace culture. Effective non-profit organizations recognize the value in supporting their employees to engage with social causes inside and outside of work, and in creating space for them to process traumatic events with time away from work.

Chart a bold course for the future of your company and the world.

There’s no way around it: Progress starts with recognizing the harm caused by capitalism, neoliberalism and wealth inequality, and taking a public stand for bold systemic change. The health of our communities is a collective responsibility, one that can’t be shunted off to charities, non-profits and small community groups to tackle. Taking on this responsibility will also enable you to be more authentic, reciprocal and effective in your work and allyship.

Following a mission-based approach has powerful internal benefits and can help you avoid taking wasteful risks or chasing trends. With every decision, ask yourself, “Does this support our mission (those other than making more money)?” If the answer is an honest yes, you can feel more confident that it’s worth investing time and energy in.


Stacey Newman/Handout

Paul Taylor is the executive director of FoodShare Toronto, a non-profit that advocates for food justice by supporting community-based food initiatives. He is the leadership lab columnist for April, 2021.

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.

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