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In the past, our organization has not worked with many non-profits because of the goals set forth by the Small Business Administration. Reason being, for-profit operations create jobs, create profits and, in return, create tax revenue that supports our local communities, our state and the nation. In addition, many believe that non-profit challenges are not similar in nature to for-profit ventures.

I disagree with these beliefs. It would be ignorant to suggest that non-profits do not have similar business issues such as revenues, financing, marketing, or management. It is also pretty clear that non-profits create jobs and opportunities for community growth.

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Through volunteerism, I have been working with various non-profits in Harford, Carroll and Cecil counties. I have come to understand that boards of directors who run their organization in similar fashion to successful for-profit ventures are effective at accomplishing the organizational mission.

Case in point, a few days ago I counseled a private school that is struggling with enrollment. As I analyzed their records, I quickly realized that this organization had lost its direction. When the school's enrollment declined a few years ago, it took corrective measure by expanding service offerings, but the measure was not sustainable. Why? Similar to a for-profit business, the best decisions are not made in desperate times.

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First, the client did not take into account the demand for the expanded services; market research was not completed. Extensive research could have determined if early and elementary private education is in demand in this specific area. Nor was public school satisfaction data evaluated prior to making the decision. In addition, a financial analysis was not conducted to shed light on the cost of the expansion, or the additional enrollment needed to offset the expense.

Second, the client devalued its service offerings by being everything to everyone instead of focusing on its strengths. This is like walking into an Italian restaurant and finding enchiladas on the menu. The identity of the organization is not clear and creates confusion as it relates to mission and vision for both consumers and employees. Also, marketing campaigns often suffer because the target audience is not well defined.

Third, the overall strategy for the organization is no longer the path for fulfilling the mission. It is clear that this organization has started plugging holes as it moved into a reactionary state. Envision a dam; a hole is patched and as quickly as the hole is patched another leak has sprung.

Their challenges mirror obstacles of for-profit businesses that have failed to create an effective business plan. Ironically enough, the private school had failed to create a strategic plan for its organization.

At the end of the day, despite organizational structure, all organizations are selling something. It may be a widget or it may be education. In my experience, understanding basic business principles is what can make the sale.

Amy Wallace is the Regional Director for the America's Small Business Development Center Northern Region, serving Carroll, Harford and Cecil counties.

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