About The Author

David Grabitske

David Grabitske is the manager of outreach services at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Over the years a lot has been said about what government and nonprofits could learn from business. In the latest issue of the McKinsey Quarterly, Richard Haass says in an interview that businesses could learn much from government. such as building up protections from man-made and natural disasters, or investing in literacy to create a more skilled workforce. Thinking about what businesses could learn from government is an appropriate reversal of common assertions to the contrary. The article then prompts the next question: what could businesses learn from nonprofits? In this case, specifically what could businesses learn from nonprofit historical organizations?

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4 Responses to Learning from nonprofits

  1. Mary Warner says:

    That’s easy. Businesses could learn that there is more to life than making a profit.


    David Grabitske reply on February 27th, 2008:

    Easy, yes; but one might say “glib” also.
    What “specifically” could businesses learn from the way local historical organizations operate? I am thinking from the article one way might be making a commitment to operate in a local community. Is there any chance the Morrison County Historical Society will relocate to Mexico City to take advantage of lower costs in staffing? I’d be curious to know what other lessons specifically could a business learn from nonprofit local historical museums.


    Mary Warner reply on February 27th, 2008:

    Of course I was being glib, David. Don’t businesses like sound bites and quick answers? Time is money and the ultimate mission of any business is to make money. Businesses want us to measure our value in tangible ways – how much did we get in donations and grants, how many members do we have, what’s our visitor count?

    The problem with this is that so much of a nonprofit’s mission is intangible. When a researcher is brought to tears because he has found a long-lost relative listed within our files, the value of that is extremely positive, but also immeasurable. We’ve made a personal connection that meets our mission, but may or may not benefit us financially.

    Because our mission is based on preserving Morrison County’s history, obviously there’s not a chance we’re going to relocate to Mexico City. One of the first things I learned during a small business class was the saying, “Location, location, location.” That was supposed to be a way to teach us that businesses must find high-traffic or otherwise appropriate locations in order to be successful. I think some businesses have lost sight of that, believing that they can operate anywhere the labor is cheap, and move around at will. They don’t feel compelled to connect to their communities, to take root and really understand the value of the people in a particular location. Businesses don’t always want to connect to a locale because they don’t want to have to feel responsible when they pull up stakes and move to the next cheap labor market. They don’t want to look at the labor market as a collection of human beings. They prefer to see them as human resources, cogs in the machine of Capitalism.

    Businesses could really learn something about humanity from historical organizations. That’s what we do best – we keep a record of human activity, the personal triumphs and tragedies that make us real and not expendable.


  2. Businesses could learn from nonprofit historical organizations to learn from their own history, perhaps with the guidance of local historians and archivists, and to see where their business fits into community and state history. Even businesses that don’t have organized archives of their own, like General Mills and Target do, can learn from their history what the concerns of their founders were, what their predecessors tried that worked, and what failed, how to mine materials from their history and their community’s history, like old photographs and graphics, to promote today’s products and services.


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