No Money, No Problem

Forgive me if I've blogged about this before, but having no money is a great way to learn how to run a great organization. I recall a leadership class I took in grad school in which one of the readings' main points was that the best way to motivate your employees was to treat them like volunteers, in terms of figuring out non-monetary forms of compensation. I was spouting off some things I had learned in my workplace, and when my classmates wondered how it is I came to such ideas, I stated plainly, "well, in my case, a lot of my employees ARE volunteers."

This is the premise behind Nancy Lublin's latest book, which is profiled in this month's Fast Company. The excerpt from Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business is a bit patronizing of for-profit companies - let's tone down the "aren't we non-profiteers so much more creative and noble than our stuffy for-profit counterparts,"shall we? But the premise is good: as in life, the best things in business are free. Win-win partnerships, guerrilla marketing, finding cause-oriented people and giving them room to bleed for you: these are all good strategies, whether or not they are necessitated by having no resources. It was fun to put them into motion at my old job, and it is fun to see them recommended by a star like Lublin for companies of all sizes and types.

As I spend more time looking at the public sector, I wonder if many of these principles may also apply there. Might the recent fiscal crunch faced by our states and cities be seen as an opportunity to practice what Lublin is preaching? Can we get off the topic of wheezing about having no money, and marshal that psychic energy towards figuring out how we're going to do more with less? Is it possible that not being able to count on public resources might be a good thing if it encourages leanness, innovation, and partnership among people and institutions that intersect with the public sector? Perhaps having no money and instead having to make your agency a great place to work could lead to the government sector tapping into young people's innate urge to make a difference and render good public service?

It's more complicated than that, of course. But the sentiment is, I think, sound. The greatest management lessons I've learned in life have been at a non-profit that didn't have much money, and the greatest learning moments during that time were when we had the least money. Maybe this recession and its consequences on the public sector have been painful; but maybe we can make the most of it and develop some good habits that ought to continue even if the resources return.

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