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Opinion: Nonprofits can learn engagement lessons from business

Bridging the Divide

Posted online

I am a huge fan of engagement in any organization. People perform better when they are engaged in what they are doing and understand why they do it, leading to increased customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, productivity and profitability.

However, managers too often make the mistake of focusing on finding solutions to problems themselves over engaging their people to solve their own problems. This result is disengagement. 

The same holds true for the relationship between nonprofit organizations and the people they serve. If a nonprofit looks at its “clients” as having a challenge that only their organization can solve, they won’t be nearly as successful than if they partner with their clients to mutually solve problems.

Some nonprofits are designed to provide services to their clients from across the counter. They have a solution in mind for a challenge, and they offer the solution to anyone who needs it. The need is real, so clients come and use the service.

However, I have been in several situations where there was a noticeable divide between the servers and the people being served. One particular memory was serving food in a soup kitchen to people in the community. We were on one side of the counter, and the community recipients were on the other. While people were grateful for the food, many were embarrassed for being there and a few even had a bit of an attitude toward us as we served them. 

This kind of divide also happens within organizations, and it has a negative impact on effectiveness. Departments that will not collaborate with other departments hinder progress and create tension and frustration. Regarding the community, I have heard friends of mine express similar frustrations. “Don’t they appreciate what we are doing for them?” they ask. Notice the language used, too. Don’t “they” appreciate what “we” are doing?

Just like an organization with silos, the divide between a nonprofit and the people it serves has a similar effect: It hinders our community. 

In recent decades, Springfield has truly upped its game on collaborating. While in many communities there are major organizations that won’t talk to each other, Springfield is a place where civic, nonprofit and business organizations work together frequently to try to solve community challenges.

But there are some challenges that Springfield has not been as successful in resolving. Look at our workforce shortages and generational poverty. 

Springfield’s nonprofits, in partnership with civic and business organizations, have been plugging away at Springfield’s poverty challenge for well over a decade. I have seen several major coalitions formed and personally sat in conference rooms talking with dedicated people trying to find solutions to the generational poverty. When I look around the table, I see nonprofit leaders, young professionals, leaders from our city and county government, and business executives. Everyone is there except for the people we are trying to help.  

Engagement is not just for businesses. It also is for nonprofit organizations and our community. Just as you shouldn’t try to solve a major challenge inside of an organization through management alone, we shouldn’t try to solve our major community issues without truly engaging the entire community.

The “we” versus “they” paradigm has slowly begun to shift, but I do want to challenge you to think about how you can be a part of the solution and engage everyone. Ask questions. Reach out and talk to someone who is not typically in your circle. Go where “they” are. These are the types of actions that can make Springfield better.

Fortunately, there are nonprofits in our community that truly engage their clients and work with them to understand their challenges. These nonprofits are making a difference by turning “they” and “we” into “us,” and they are making us a better Springfield because of it.

Don Harkey is the owner and CEO at People Centric Consulting Group. He can be reached at


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