Last week Google released Google Voice, a universal phone number that ties together your various phone numbers, email, SMS, and voice over IP addresses. It includes a central voicemail box. The product is a revamped version of the service previously offered under the name Grandcentral (which Google bought). My friend Allan Benamer, writes the Non-Profit Tech Blog and commented on the impact of the new offering on a nonprofit he used to work for called Community Voice Mail.
[CVM’s] admirable goal was to provide free voicemail accounts for homeless clients throughout the city…There is no doubt that a lot of good was done by CVM before Grandcentral showed up on the scene. Many clients attested to its usefulness. However, Community Voicemail is made redundant in the face of publicly available free voicemail. Indeed, Grandcentral actually offered homeless people in San Francisco free voicemail just like CVM.
Then quoting himself writing in 2006, Allan writes:
In a deep way, this really gets to the heart of what any non-profit’s true mission is which I believe is to render itself obsolete. If the private sector in the guise of Grandcentral is providing free voicemail, then shouldn’t every non-profit that is currently providing free voicemail in a very serious way ask: “Should we shut down our free voicemail services?” While this may be a sad outcome for many people, we should consider it a victory ultimately for the ability of our sector to step in when no one else did and conversely, to back off when others pick up the slack.
I think this thesis that the obsolete nonprofit is the best kind of nonprofit is wrong. But I offered a similar suggestion in a Financial Times column from the summer of 2007 when I wrote:
Another example of the changing face of philanthropy is the growing popularity of social enterprises – for-profit companies that are in business to do social good. Green Dimes is a for-profit company that helps consumers reduce the amount of junk mail they receive. But its bigger mission is to create a national Do Not Mail list, similar to the Do Not Call list that limits telemarketing. Ironically, if they achieve their mission, they will drive themselves right out of business – a fact they proudly trumpet.
Lucky for me, I had Kevin Jones, who understands value creation better than most, school me when he pointed out that if Green Dimes drove themselves out of business they would, in the process, build a massive reservoir of trust with their customers. That “trust to maintain personal information” would be hugely valuable to the company and would allow them to move on to bigger and better projects.
I’m writing about this today because I think it highlights the difference between programs and organizations. Great nonprofit organizations should hope that they can render their programs obsolete. If a program is designed to distribute food to the hungry, nothing could be better than a sudden lack of hungry people. But great organizations (for-profit or nonprofit) don’t just have a nifty product or program. They are well run organizations who understand how to recognize community needs, design a solution and execute a flawless delivery.
When we confuse programs with organizations, we naturally think that all resources should go to the program and organizational expenses should be minimized. But when we understand that value creation occurs at the organizational level, it re-orients our understanding of the nonprofit’s purpose.
Unless we design Utopia, nonprofits will never be obsolete.
[Update: Reader Ryan Lanham takes correct issue with my colusion in this comment. Click to read my response. My conclusion was speaking to the field becoming obsolete, but Ryan rightly points out that certain nonprofits might do best by closing their doors in certain circumstances.
Update Two: Clearly this post was sloppily written. See the comments for my further explanation of my premise.)