Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business

The financial crisis of 2008 and subsequent downturn in the economy has forced organizations of all sizes to cut budgets and expenses, extract value from every dollar spent, and become more creative. The irony inherent in the "new normal" isn't lost on nonprofit leaders, for whom pinching pennies is a fact of life. Indeed, writes Nancy Lublin in Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, the vast majority of nonprofits can take comfort in the fact that "after years and years of being told that we…[need to be] more like organizations in the corporate world, the pendulum is now swinging in the other direction."

In Zilch, Lublin, the founder of Dress for Success and CEO of Do Something, a nonprofit that helps young people take action to improve their neighborhoods and communities, shares how she and other nonprofit leaders have done more on low (or no) budgets and offers a very practical guide for executives — of all types — who are looking to do more with less. Indeed, says Lublin, "Zilch is what drives us to be more innovative, more passionate, more creative."

Founded in 1993 by actor Andrew Shue ("Billy" in the hit television show Melrose Place), Do Something benefited from "many celebrity-filled events, heaps of press coverage, and an army of high-profile founders" up until the series ended in 1999. But by the time Lublin joined the organization in 2003, it "had only $75,000 in the bank and twenty-one of twenty-two staff members had just been laid off." Even though the organization was essentially broke, Lublin turned down a two-year, $600,000 grant from a corporate funder because of the restrictions attached to the money, which included the opening of additional offices in markets selected by the funder — something that "would have crippled" the organization, writes Lublin. "Given the high level of uncertainty that not-for-profits face — flush with funds one moment thanks to a big event, then nearly broke the next because a corporate sponsor wants a different brand association — [we] opted to use multiyear budgeting [instead]." Doing so, adds Lublin, helped the leadership team at Do Something avoid making rash decisions with potentially negative long-term consequences.

In another chapter titled "Do More With Less Cash to Throw at People," Lublin explains how some nonprofits have managed to keep staff motivated even when the economy turns sour. Her suggestions include everything from crafting big, lofty vision and mission statements and making sure that individuals at every level of the organization are engaged in the pursuit of the prize, to laying out clear career development paths and working with staff to build their skills, to never underestimating the importance of fun and remembering to say "thank you."

The nonprofit world is accustomed to using stories to engage the public and drive donations, but Lublin says for-profit corporations "seem to forget that they....have stories," too. Hewlett-Packard, for example, was founded in 1939 by two guys in a garage, and according to Lublin, President Obama frequently cites the HP "genesis story" as an example of small-business success. How can companies do more with their stories at no extra cost? Lublin suggests that corporations follow HP's example and honor their history while working to create a culture of storytelling; in so doing, she adds, remember that image is everything and that, today more than ever, buzz can be created with tools that are free or cost next to nothing.

To that end, for-profit companies can learn from charity: water, a nonprofit that works to bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing nations — and one of the first to use the free social networking site Twitter to increase its network of followers and donors. Now, whenever the nonprofit has something to share, "[it] doesn't need to push out a press release or beg CNN to tell its story — its following [on Twitter] is the media it wants to see."

Nonprofits also use barter, notes Lublin, "to create more diverse, more meaningful, and longer-lasting alliances." For example, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a global leader in the fight against breast cancer, has built a long-standing relationship with Yoplait yogurt, which prints a pink ribbon on the outside of every one of its yogurt containers. Komen gains exposure through the partnership and Yoplait gains influence with grocery store operators because shoppers often choose "to buy [their brand] instead of some other yogurt that doesn't support breast cancer research." Organizations have also started bartering brand equity to enhance their reputation. United Parcel Service, for example, has entered into a barter arrangement with New York Road Runners to transport the personal belongings of forty thousand marathoners who travel to New York City every November to run the New York City Marathon. "Does UPS care about running? Maybe," writes Lublin. "More likely the marathon connotes excellence in service. NYRR has a reputation for execution….UPS wants to be associated with that kind of service excellence."

In the book's final chapter, "Do More With Innovation," Lublin explains that nonprofits have long worked creatively to "keep costs down, to find fresh sources of funding, to energize our own overworked, underpaid staffers, and to figure out an original way to put on an annual event." And while there's more risk involved whenever a new idea is in play, writes Lublin, "without [new ideas], there also isn't any of the potentially huge reward." To illustrate her point, Lublin shares the story of the Mozilla Foundation, which is best known for the open-source Firefox Web browser and was a project of for-profit Netscape/AOL before it was established as an independent foundation. Today, notes Lublin, the foundation gives the legions of volunteer programmers who work to improve Firefox the freedom to "take risks, try new approaches, and push the envelope" — a level of risk-taking that's unheard of in most corporations, where bureaucracy and long chains of command typically leach much of the creativity out of even the most promising innovations.

Lublin knits together similar stories in each of the book's eleven chapters to drive home the point that it is not only possible to do more with less, it's an organizational imperative. It's a message that nonprofit/philanthropic leaders and social entrepreneurs as well as corporate business leaders can benefit from, and Lublin backs it up with plenty of practical advice and real-world examples. As she writes at one point, it's time to "stop whining...and start asking yourself what you would do if you had zilch. You'll be surprised to discover just how powerful that is."

Regina Mahone
Assistant to the Publisher, PND
Foundation Center
New York, New York