A Washington Post news analysis of how the Clinton Foundation began and grew into the powerhouse it is today offers a great case study for nonprofits and associations even if they don't have a name and network to leverage like the Clintons have.
First, the Clinton Foundation business model is a networked business model based on influential people with mutual interests helping each other. While some people might get a little queasy about some of the Clinton relationships, nonprofits and businesses working together is nothing new in the nonprofit world. However, many organizations are careful not to rely as extensively on underwriters, sponsorships, partnerships and big ticket events. In my years working in this sector, I was always slightly puzzled and amused by nonprofit leaders who preferred foundation grants to corporate sponsorship. They have forgotten that most foundations are simply corporate money laundered once before putting it to public purpose.
Sure, it’s wise to bring integrity into this exchange. All that pharma money moving through healthcare associations was questionable, but at least the sponsors were disclosed. Nonprofits and associations need processes and ethics panels to protect themselves from any hint of quid pro quo. But organizations with a shared objective to do something commendable should be able to do so, without feeling grubby about it. We are moving ever closer to a world where the distinctions between nonprofits and socially responsible companies will not be that great.
Second, the Clinton Foundation may have the world’s greatest convener or connector in Bill Clinton. The man lives to make friends. What leaders in your organization exhibit these same qualities? Could you build a conference or service around their reputation and network? Maybe it won’t be as headline grabbing as the Clinton Global Initiative but you might find you can generate some real buzz getting key industry leaders to work together publicly on big challenges.
Could you do a lot more to use these leaders as rainmakers in generating new sources of revenues and contributions? Nonprofits are less skittish about doing this than associations. Membership associations seem more nervous about managing how power and influence are distributed. Philanthropic organizations have always used important people to get to money and power.
Finally, there's an important insight in what the Clinton Foundation decided to abandon because it could not do it at scale. One of my new nonprofit clients has been offering this service for more than 50 years. In the organization’s recent strategy session, the leaders committed to a new strategic direction based on a network model of relationships and resources. Like Clinton, they too want a big impact for the small businesses they serve. If they borrow a few pages from the Clinton Foundation playbook, they might be well positioned to do what even the Clinton Foundation, with its billions, decided it couldn’t do well.
So that’s a least three takeaways from the Clinton Foundation as a case study:
- Build a business model on a network of influential partners helping each other.
- Find your most gifted conveners and connectors to drive new possibilities.
- Know your unique value proposition and fulfill your mission with passion and great strategy. That may be more essential than a billion dollars.