No group has focused on building alignment and enlistment more than the non-profit, civic, and community sectors.  I’ve had the good fortune to work with some of the best – hospitals, animal shelters, the Chamber of Commerce, and industry change groups. With shallow budgets and a heavy dependence on volunteers (not to mention the careful watch of donors), the best non-profit groups not only stay afloat, they thrive by focusing on a few core goals.

Like non-profit groups, service professionals (like lawyers, consultants, accountants, and other service providers) rarely function with a “command and control” hierarchy, and instead depend on the alignment and enlistment of others – including clients, their staff, fellow professionals, or others.   

Here are three basic lessons that I’ve observed in great non-profits:

1. Focus on others.

Non-profits must treat people well. Volunteers can leave. Donors can drift elsewhere. Therefore, great non-profits have become deeply skilled at focusing on others.

It starts with powerful, active listening. What are donors looking for? Are there potential issues? How do volunteers feel? If there is an issue with a stakeholder, what happened? By listening, non-profits can engage in powerful conversations. Instead of trying to make a “hard sell” or win an argument, the best non-profit groups look first to understand and find solutions. This approach helps non-profits avoid petty fights and keeps everyone focused on the organization’s greater mission.

For example, I recently observed a non-profit interact with a large donor whom was believed to disagree with some aspects of the non-profit’s operations. Instead of plowing head-first with reasons why the operations were justified or correct, the non-profit simply listened to donor’s vision. Before long, the donor explained his admiration for the many important services that the non-profit provided, along with his desire to create a lasting legacy around a good friend’s tireless work. The differences were simply not important to the donor or the donor’s envisioned legacy.

Focusing on others also fosters engagement and alignment. People are motivated by many things. More salary isn’t an option for many non-profits. It’s not helpful for their relationship with donors. Therefore, they have pioneered recognition of peoples’ other potential motivations, like a sense of purpose, recognition, training, a sense of community, opportunity for leadership development, or outlets for creative expression and problem solving. This leads to a sense of purpose and deeper, more robust relationships.

Similarly, professionals should focus on others. With regard to clients, professionals often focus on themselves: I’ll tell you why I’m the best fit. I should be handling your affairs. I’ll do whatever you say. Instead, focus on clients. What happened? What is the client’s motivation? How can you help the client achieve his or her goal?  Why do they think so? Many professionals self-inflict a pressure to have the perfect answer, when the best course is asking more questions.

Professionals are often part of a team.  Again here, listening and understanding motivations can go a long way toward building great relationships and alignment.

2. Be authentic.

The great non-profits also understand authenticity. Non-profits cannot stand for all things. They must be clear in their identity and purpose. As a practical reality, this helps people find them and, ultimately, trust them. Non-profits understand that they will not appeal to everyone.  An authentic identity is not only acceptable, it is also an essential part of their chance for a successful mission. The American Cancer Society focuses on cancer; it may recognize the great needs around AIDS, global hunger, and school preparedness, but it focuses on cancer. Every non-profit – whether Habitat for Humanity, The Cato Institute, or the ACLU – recognizes that certain people may not support their purpose. But, there are some people looking for a group doing exactlywhat they do. If these non-profits were not comfortable and clear about exactly who they are, then volunteers, donors, and others could never find them.

Equally importantly, complete authenticity brings clarity and efficiency. The non-profit can operate transparently, without worrying about mixed messages or maintaining a false veneer. This allows the best non-profits to focus on their goals, stakeholders, and environment.  At the same time, it transmits clear signals that it is self-aware and comfortable with its purpose (even during rocky times).

Professionals can learn a lot from this model. Clients and colleagues are usually also looking for a specific type of person or group – in skill set, expertise, and temperament. Savvy clients often know the right person for the task: aggressive, calculating, technical, bombastic, diplomatic, observant, etc.  Many professionals fail to stand out by either cloaking themselves in a façade of “professionalism and decorum” or they shift their personality with each person. This makes it impossible for clients and colleagues to know the person – let alone notice and choose that person as a professional. Worse, it forces these misguided professionals to juggle false expectations and act like someone they are not, instead of simply focusing on great service.

3. Have a mission.

Third, focus on the greater purpose or mission. Revenue is great. But, great non-profits generate money only to fulfill their greater mission. A non-profit hospital needs to generate revenue to maintain world-class facilities and professionals, but its mission is to help sick people.  The Smithsonian’s mission is not growing revenue through the operation of a museum, intellectual property, and other branded content; it is simply: “The increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Some groups have focused missions like curing a specific disease. Other groups wish to protect legal rights or help spark broad economic change.  Whatever the mission, identifying the larger purpose has many benefits. It provides an unmistakable guide for decisions throughout the organizations and within each step. It breeds alignment and satisfaction among potentially disparate groups of employees, donors, volunteers, and others. Being part of a team that is achieving a mission is a powerful tool for alignment and fulfillment – often breeding passion, gratitude, and relationships. Plus, a larger goal can help when digesting short-term setbacks and challenges. Great non-profits start with the mission and a sense of purpose, rather than rewards.

Professionals should also have a mission. This must be customized and have broad application. The grater purpose may involve solving problems, providing comfort, protecting others, making the world a better place, or a million other things. Like with non-profits, this can have many benefits. It creates clarity and alignment with clients and colleagues. People want to have an impact. Recognizing a greater purpose among colleagues – whether tackling a deal, trial, or particularly challenging set of obstacles – builds a passionate community. Lastly, like the mission for many non-profits, the professional’s greater purpose serves as a constant reminder to look outside themselves, toward clients and their actual needs.  The mission allows for calibration and adjustment of each task in the context of the big picture. That, combined with authenticity and a focus on others, creates a beneficial and compounding cycle for everyone.

About the author: Randy Miller is a partner in the Denver office of the international law firm Bryan Cave LLP. In addition to helping companies solve problems, Randy is involved with multiple civic and charitable endeavors. He is the 2017 recipient the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s award for Volunteer Board Member of the Year (click here) and is currently serving as the Chairman of St. Joseph Hospital Foundation (click here). He also currently serves on the Executive Board of Von Miller’s Von’s Vision Charity (click here).