The business model of not-for-profit organizations

Solving the big issues of our generation requires bold new business models  
Osterwalder and Pigneur (2010, 265)

In a short time span I encountered two views on the usage of business economics in not-for-profit situations. Firstly, the quote above this blog, in which Osterwalder and Pigneur(2010) claim that a business model approach could help solve present day global problems. Against this, Thompkins(2005) argues that inefficiency is an important characteristic of the public sector as it is the effect of the necessary democratic process and the required transparency of processes in this sector, or as the title of his article says: The distinctive context of public management; implying that there are different kinds of management.

In our view this seemingly contradiction is based on a misunderstanding of the concept of the business model. Although it is developed for analyzing and developing models in the for-profit sector, it is about the creation and deliverance of value. So if transparency is an attribute of the public sector, it should be represented in a business model describing a specific public organization.

This is the challenge Judith Sanderse and myself have taken on. We agree with Osterwalder and Pigneur(2010)  that the business model, and more specific the Business Canvas, can be used to increase the efficiency and effectively of all kinds of organizations, including not-for-profit ones. Hence, the main objective of Judith’s research was the development of a specialized business model canvas for NGOs. The central research question of this study is ‘how is a NGO business model canvas structured?’

 However, by using the Business Canvas for analyzing not-for-profit organizations, we have to take two tings in account:

1. the definitions of terms in the general business model will not be recognized by the managers and employees of these organizations and sometimes even lead to resistance to use the Canvas;

2. given the specific functions of these organizations, the Business Canvas will have to reflect the different attributes of these organizations to increase both the usability as the acceptance of the models.

Judith Sanderse did analyze the potential usage of the Business Canvas in the case of non-governmental organizations. To do so, she used three steps; firstly using the literature (especially that on social enterprises) to adjust the ‘Beyond-Profit-Business Canvas (see Osterwalder and Pigneur, 2010, 264-265), proposing an adjusted model for not-for-profit organizations.

Secondly, she interviewed several experts, to see if the model was usable in terms of form and variables. From these interviews she concluded that the Business Canvas should be adjusted. Different business models have to be used for foundations and ngo’s (see the figure below).


Furthermore, the definitions have to be adjusted and clarified. In the table below the definitions as used are given.

Key definitions
Business model A business model describes the rationale of how an organization creates, delivers, and captures value.
Vision Outlines what the organization wants to be. It can be emotive and is a source of inspiration. For example, a charity working with the poor might have a vision statement which reads “A World without Poverty.”
Key Partners The network of cooperative agreements with other people or organizations (including governments) necessary to efficiently offer and distribute the organisation’s mission and programmes.
Key Activities The main actions which an organisation needs to perform to create its value proposition.
Key Resources The physical, financial, intellectual or human assets required to make the business model work.
Value Proposition The organisation’s mission, its main programmes and brand.
Mission Defines the fundamental purpose of an organization, succinctly describing why it exists and what it does to achieve its vision. For example, the charity working with the poor can have a mission statement as “providing jobs for the homeless and unemployed”.
Relationships The type of relationship the organisation has established or wants to establish with each key beneficiary or donor segment.
Programme delivery methods The method which the organisation uses to achieve its mission or programme activities to the beneficiaries.
Ultimate Beneficiaries The target group who the organisation principally aims to reach and serve to achieve its vision/mission.
Channels The methods of communication, distribution and sales used by the organization to interface with its customer/donor segments.
Customer/Donor Segments The different group of customer and/or donor segments which the organisation targets for its fundraising activities. In this component customers tend to be more related to the merchandising section of the organisation and donors tend to be related to the fundraising section of the organisation.
Revenue The income streams, this could be donations, merchandises/sales, investments or other income streams available for the organisation to work on its value proposition.
Costs The total expenses which the organisation incurred (or will incur) to implement the agreed activities.

Lastly, the adjusted model was used to analyze five NGO-s through interviews with key-managers of these organizations. The split business model was recognizable and usable according to these managers. Functioned mentioned where:

    • Understand the dependencies of the separate elements
    • Change process
    • Visualization of the organisation
    • Staff induction
    • Communication, both internally and externally
    • Alignment

Yet further research should follow the usage of the model in describing and analyzing the workings of the organizations, to see if it is possible to improve or even change the way they try to realize their goals.

Yet, despite the ultimate goal of the organization, be it the public good, education or income for the stockholders, it will require money to make our world go round.






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