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Nancy Lublin of Do Something on how to do more with less

   /   Jul 15th, 2010Business, News

I swung by the 92Y Tribeca here in New York Tuesday evening for a cool book event: Nancy Lublin, author of the new book Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, in conversation with the Economist‘s Matthew Bishop, of Philanthrocapitalism fame.

Lublin founded Dress for Success, a not-for-profit (don’t use the “nonprofit” word around her; trust me) that provides low-income women with interview suits and career training. She got it started at age 23 with a $5,000 inheritance; today, it’s operating in 80 cities in four countries. In 2003, she took over Do Something, a youth volunteer organization on life support. This year, it’s on track to help 1.2 million teens take action for a better world.

Lublin says she wrote Zilch because she’d had it with people telling not-for-profits to act more like for-profit businesses. She says it’s the other way round: Unlike a lot of companies, the dot orgs can’t just throw money at challenges—because most don’t have money to throw around! (And that’s especially true now, with the economy in the shape it’s in.) Instead they have to be creative and “scrappy”—to do more with less. Zilch is packed with practical tips to help businesses and not-for-profits do just that.

The conversation was lively, funny, and smart. Read on for a few snippets from the event. And learn more about Zilch here.

The number one lesson from the book: “Figure out the goal of your organization. Why does it matter? The best not-for-profits have a very clear sense of purpose. Take [not-for-profit search engine company] Mozilla: their employees aren’t just building a search engine–they’re working for an open Internet.”

Don’t call them nonprofits. Really: “I don’t work at a nonprofit. Detroit has nonprofit car companies–meaning they don’t make a profit, they’re not succeeding.”

No need to get carried away: “Companies don’t have to turn themselves into social change organizations. You see that, and it’s sad to watch; it’s usually the CEO imposing his or her pet cause on the company.”

Businesses tend to throw money at problems: “The for-profit leaders first impulse is to say, ‘How do we get more money?’ not ‘how can we do more with less?’”

Turn employees (and former employees) into evangelists for your organization: “Keep former employees in the loop; make them feel they’re still part of the company. (Remember: you’re still on their resumes!) This is another reason having a clear purpose is so important: people have to understand the company to become effective evangelists.”

Size is overrated: “There’s this obsession with scale, with ‘scaling up’–but some of the best, most creative stuff is being done by small and medium-sized organizations.”

Learn to say ‘no’: “Mission creep is a big danger. You need to decide what your core competency is and really rock it.”

The workplace should be fun: “You spend most of your day there, so you’d better enjoy it.”

The difference between leaders and czars: “Leaders build things that are sustainable and then leave. That’s why I left Dress for Success after seven years. We were replicating the model by that point, not expanding the vision. Czars hang on and get their heads chopped off.”

Finding your passion and purpose comes first: “As a culture we’re obsessed with founders. I go to colleges and business school and meet young people who say, ‘I’m going to start an organization. I don’t know what I’m passionate about yet, but I know I want to found something.’ That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Photo: fastcompany.com

6 Responses

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