Zilch: A Lesson on Supporting Employees and Developing Talent when You Dont Have Tons of Money to Spend

A few months ago I got a copy of Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business by Nancy Lublin, CEO of DoSomething.org.  The book is a fast and engaging read, set around nine themes of what nonprofits can teach businesses about doing more with less.  Aside from this perspective being validating and refreshing (I mean, seriously, how often do people scream the opposite: that nonprofits should be more like businesses?And how often do we nonprofits dwell on what we lack instead of what we have?) it made me reflect on and appreciate the many times I have witnessed organizations making meaningful and powerful use of limited resources.

In fact, one lesson from the book in particular–”Do More with Less Cash to Throw at People“– spoke directly to my experience in the sector and its enormous potential to cultivate talent.  I think many nonprofits can become experts when it comes to supporting employees beyond limited salaries.  We often have no choice and need the best and brightest to help change the world.  And interestingly enough, for many young nonprofit professionals, money is not the biggest draw to the sector nor is it the main cause of them leaving (indeed one in three wants to be an executive director).  Instead, it’s the lack of opportunities to grow and be supported.

I have certainly seen this first hand.  As I have written before, in my last job I earned $36,000.  While this is a respectable amount, living in NYC I definitely had to be mindful of how much money I spent. However, I was lucky to have my professional and personal goals supported in several ways outlined in the book:

  • Title and responsibility: At my last job I was Development Director and had the responsibility of launching and leading various marketing, enrollment, and fundraising initiatives.
  • Inclusion in goal setting and changes: When it came to fulfilling my responsibilities, I had a say in what our targets would be and how we would reach them.
  • Ability to attend conferences and workshops: My principal was big on continuing education and networking.  She fully believed that the ability to connect with others and be a life long learner were crucial for success and offered generous time off to attend conference and workshops.
  • Discussions of education and equality: I would have conversations with the principal, staff, and teachers about the importance of our work. While we often talked about equality and our role in pursuing it, we focused on how our interactions with students and parents may have a greater potential impact than we realize.  Creating a great school that was engaging and exciting for students and parents was our primary goal.
  • Concern for my well being: If I called out sick, the next day I would have what felt like the entire school (students included!) asking me if I was ok and feeling better.  The principal would set aside time just to catch up and see how I was doing and if personal challenges were arising she had no problem giving me space and time to deal with them.

These kinds of approaches require one of the most valuable yet most misused and taken-for-granted currencies: trust. It is easier to give a higher salary than to train and support.  It is easier to give a higher salary than to re-evaluate office culture and politics.  It is easier to give a higher salary than to give freedom and flexibility in terms of time and work goals.  It is easier to give higher salary then to trust that your employees are doing their best.  But goodness, what a different it makes!

Make no mistake: this isn’t an attempt to dismiss the funding challenges and starvation cycles that many nonprofits endure.  However, it is an attempt to highlight what we do have, what we do well, and what others can learn from us.

Although Zilch was written for businesses, it provides an incredible blueprint for other nonprofits and startups on how to do the most with limited resources.  Nancy states “If you are expecting a book about doing more good, you’ve got the wrong book…It is not some spiritual tome about finding yourself or generating good karma–I want you to read with a highlighter in hand, not a candle.”  When I finished reading the book I felt energized, recommitted to the sector, and ready to put what I learned into practice.

Members of the Nonprofit Millenial Bloggers Alliance are tackling this issue and reflecting on how they’ve seen their organizations do more with less.  Add your story below!