It lulled me in. I tried to turn away but the more I saw the more it pulled me in. Definitely not the kind of show for a teetotaler from a conservative evangelical church. The language was, shall we say, colorful. The characters spanned the full range from the risk-taking entrepreneur to the single-parent waitress struggling to make ends meet. The show is called “Bar Rescue” and this particular Sunday they were on a marathon run-showing back to back episodes all day! The only thing that pulled me away was an appointment to pick my son up from an appointment. And it’s a good thing he was more than a few miles away – he may have had to walk!
What fascinated me the most and grabbed my attention was the uncanny resemblance between the challenges facing declining bar businesses and those facing organizations in the nonprofit sector. It’s safe to say that the same hurdles for-profit businesses face is not unlike those faced by organizations in the nonprofit sector. The ultimate question is how to turn them around. The for-profit sector measures success by its bottom line, the non-profit measures success by its impact on the lives of those it feels compelled to serve.
While the ultimate goal is different, the organizational challenges are the same. And all of them can be categorized under two major themes — resources and relationships. Jon Taffer, the star of the show, comes in – and in his matter-of-fact, in-your-face-style can, with an unusual gift of perception, troubleshoot the situation and help turn businesses around within a relatively short period of time. Some businesses struggle due to poor management of resources – financial controls, inventory, branding, cleanliness, etc. And other times challenges were more relational in nature – personnel management, training, leadership, etc. And as you might expect it, some were even a combination of the two. In the end, what turned bar businesses around was a willingness on the part of the owner to do something different. And in most cases they involved decisions that owners were very hesitant to make.
Sometimes it takes a set of “fresh eyes” to come into a situation and objectively analyze it for what it is. And the same business principles and practices that keep for-profits successful will also keep non-profits on the cutting edge. It’s not always unhealthy for nonprofits to go through a shake-up. Especially the sort of planned, introspective focus that allows the board and staff to focus on its primary mission and uncover any obstacles that may stand in the way of fulfilling its mission. And more and more, the philanthropic community is demanding greater accountability and clearly-formulated outcomes and measurements of success from the nonprofit sector. Board members and executive directors of struggling agencies should be willing to invite the Jon Taffer’s of the nonprofit community to come alongside our current practitioners and take an objective look at current practices to unearth sound business practices or principles that may help better position agencies for the challenges ahead. Its not a fun process, and often reveals shortcomings in ourselves we must be willing to own and compensate for. But in the end, if nonprofits want to experience the kind of turnaround their seeking, they must be open to change.
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