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Q&A: In Lean Times, Nonprofits Give the Business World Tips

Read a Q&A with Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org, who shares lessons that for-profit businesses can learn from the resourceful nonprofit world.


Nancy Lublin founded Dress for Success, a nonprofit that helps provide disadvantaged women with professional interview clothes, when she was just 23. She is currently the CEO of DoSomething.org. Her recent book, Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, looks at the lessons for-profit businesses can learn from the resourceful nonprofit world. We asked Lublin about her young start as a nonprofit leader, the genesis of her new book, and the role of a lofty purpose in organizations.

GOOD: Where did the idea for Dress for Success came from? What made you realize that not having interview clothes was a problem for some women?

NANCY LUBLIN: My father once told me that when he hired secretaries, he would look out the window and watch candidates enter the building—and know whether or not he'd hire them before he even shook their hands.

We're judged every day based on what we look like. A guy can wear the same jacket to work, to a wedding, to a date. But women's clothing is complicated. And expensive. The skirt you wear on Saturday night is two inches shorter and two sizes smaller than the skirt you wear on Monday morning.

G: What challenge or challenges did you encounter with Dress for Success. Being so young, did you make any rookie mistakes?

NL: Actually, being young and naive was a huge advantage. Someone recently told me that the greatest start-ups of the last decade were created by guys age 20 to 24: Facebook, Ebay, YouTube, Google, Dell. When you are that age, you don't know that "there is a way things are done" and so you work off instinct and data rather than tradition. You also don't have a mortgage or a family, so pulling all-nighters isn't a big deal.

G: Your recent book Zilch explores how nonprofit leaders can teach the for-profit world how to do more with less. How did the idea for the book originate?

NL: I was sitting in a meeting at a ginormous company, discussing a new campaign they were about to launch. The budget had just been slashed to a "mere" two million dollars. Everyone in the room was freaking out. The only solution? Find more money. But I was sitting there salivating that they had two million in launch funds. And it occurred to me that my not-for-profit friends could teach these people a lot.

G: What's one example?

NL: The concept in the book that is very timely and receiving the most buzz is the section on motivating your team without using fat pay packages. Not-for-profits are living proof that you don't need to hypnotize employees with fat bonuses in order to keep them. There are lots of "free" ways to attract and retain great talent. Titles are free—so dole them out more liberally. People love being thanked, and that costs you nothing. When is the last time you looked someone in the eye and told him he did a great job?

G: Does having the social or moral mission of a nonprofit make it easier to do more with less? It's probably easier to motivate employees who feel a strong commitment to an organizations goals.

NL: People are attracted to working at a not-for-profit because of the do-good stuff. But they stay because the organization is well-managed and they are appreciated. It isn't all daffodils and puppies at not-for-profits. Its a job, like any other job.

G: One thing you suggest for-profit companies should do is adopt a "big, lofty purpose." Can this be deceptive? What if a company crafts a lofty purpose to motivate employees but doesn't back it up?

NL: I also say that the "big lofty purpose" needs to be measurable. Good not-for-profits have a single number they are shooting for: 1,000 playgrounds in 1,000 days or two million kids taking action in 2011. Everyone in the company can get behind a goal like that. You are part of a team with a clear purpose—like 11 people on a soccer field trying to put a ball in a net.

G: Do you think businesses are really adopting some of these practices from the nonprofit world now?

NL: Pfizer just bought 300 copies of the book and is having me come talk to them in December. I was at Citigroup yesterday speaking to 150 people. The CEO of Footlocker loves it.