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The world will not be saved through spreadsheets

“Harvard MBAs,” a piece on Fortune magazine’s website read, are “putting goals of corporate domination aside,” and opting for careers in the non-profit and social change world. It’s an inspiring read that relaxes the muscles around my eyes that still somehow involuntarily shrivel up at the mention of business school.

Yet where those shrivels once arose because of a conviction I held that business did nothing but hurt the poor, it does so today because we’re somehow convinced that it is the only way to save them.

Business or “market-based” solutions as a way of ending poverty are the zeitgeist. Everyone from Bono to Bill Gates and Bill Clinton are embracing them. Justly so. Enabling the poor to build businesses that create jobs and generate income is a proven and persuasive way for individuals to lift themselves up.

It persuaded me after living in Bosnia-Herzegovina for nearly four years. I had been working for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE’s focus was to rebuild the war-torn former Yugoslav republic. Except, rather than helping Bosnians, I spent most of my time writing reports and navigating through a bureaucratic maze. Procedure trumped people. It wasn’t long before I realized that my international efforts to revive the country weren’t working. Outside intervention and handouts weren’t the answers. Helping Bosnians find their own opportunities was. Entrepreneurship and business were those opportunities. Fast forward, why I’m at Peace Dividend Trust (PDT).

Yet, while I’m convinced that entrepreneurship and business are opportunities for the developing world, I’m not swayed by the trend to push non-profits, or for non-profits themselves to claim to operate “like a business,” or worse, to pack their staff with MBAs. MBAs may improve non-profit accounting and management. But to attribute it to non-profit success is wrong. Worse, it is dangerous.

In earning an MBA, business school grads have acquired much-needed skills that add value to any organization – non or for-profit. They are skills that help an organization focus on, as PDT founder Scott Gilmore says, “metrics, efficiency and analysis.” Metrics, efficiency and analysis are things that non-profits, caught between the desire to do good and the cruel reality of keeping themselves alive through endless fundraising, have done a poor job in. MBAs have helped non-profits make improvements in those areas. But they haven’t overwhelmingly transformed the industry.

Change, as I’ve previously written on my Wonderment Woman blog, doesn’t come from some slick, quantifiable spreadsheet. Change is qualitative.

It’s learned on the frontlines, in the slums, ghettos, cassava fields and war zones – not from carefully edited case studies. Case studies provide no insight or depth into the complicated conditions that make development a harrowing and draining existence and not a formula. Preparation is merely a tactic in the third world; results a day without death. Given such circumstances, it’s not calculation but conscientiousness and commitment that make the difference.

The ambitious goals that non-profits set out for themselves will be accomplished, not when an MBA takes hold of the reigns, but when the field takes decisive steps to stare down those who would rather share “feel-good” anecdotes rather than numbers that countdown the days that organization needs to operate. Non-profits don’t need an MBA to do that. Nor do they need to be run like businesses. What they do need is to put themselves out of business by fulfilling their missions.

More than MBAs, NGOs should seek out a better talent pool. If NGOs are managed badly, it’s because they make bad hiring decisions. Part of that is driven by the awful salaries non-profits offer. The other is a reluctance to fire those not producing results. It’s ironic that the very field that is enamored with Gordon Gekko pleads “humanity” when it comes to letting someone performing poorly go.

There is a lot of room for improvement in the non-profit world – and there is no time to waste. The issues that NGOs grapple with are far too urgent and critical to be debated or analyzed. That some MBAs are coming to grapple with them is welcome news. The recognition that b-school isn’t just for business but something that can affect change is a leap in the right direction. Let us treat it as such. MBAs going into the non-profit world want to make a difference. Their spreadsheet skills won’t do that – their passion, however, will.

 

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