Three Lessons about Nonprofit Operations from M.A.S.H.We dumped our cable a few years ago because I was tired of paying a ton of money for my son to watch one or two channels and frankly, we haven’t missed it. We were delighted when a few months ago, when a new channel was added to the local over the air lineup that featured old tv shows. We began to renew our acquaintance with some classic shows, such as M.A.S.H., of which I have many happy memories of watching with my dad as a kid. Watching the reruns got me to thinking about what nonprofits could learn from the show.
The “M” stands for mobile. Periodically on the show, the unit is required to “bug out” and take the hospital to a safer or more convenient location. Inevitably there’s confusion, fear, and complaining about having to uproot and move around. All that aside, the units were designed to be mobile and move around. Is your nonprofit mobile? Can you move around to where you’re needed or are you encumbered by a structure where you passively wait for your mission to find you? Just like on the show there will be fear, confusion, and a lot of complaining. If your organization can get to your members or clients first because you’re mobile or can make changes on the fly, you’ll be better able to direct your resources where they can best be used.
Be prepared to triage, accept the consequences, and move forward. One of the hardest things in an emergency is prioritizing what to do. In the case of M.A.S.H., the doctors struggle with making decisions about who to treat, leaving the most complicated and difficult cases in order to treat those with the highest likelihood of survival. If they dilly dally, more people will die, and if they mull over it they won’t be able to focus on the task at hand and save who they can save. While most nonprofits are not deciding who lives and dies, you do have to be prepared to prioritize & triage. Especially if you’re a start-up or very small. Put your resources where you will get the most bang for your buck. Beware of mission creep. Just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do it. When prioritizing, consider factors beyond money including labor needs, existing infrastructure, and potential for duplicating effort.
Know your people and what they need. When you look at the cast of characters on MASH, some of the best producers refuse to play by the rules or adapt to Army life. On the other hand, some of the people who blindly followed the policy manual created more problems and barriers to carrying out the mission. While it might not be as obvious as Klinger in an evening gown, know your people and what they need from you to be successful. Do your best to make sure they have it. What motivates your volunteers and board members for serving the organization? Is that need being filled? Do you have someone who blindly cites by-laws, policy manuals to hammer their perspective home (a la Frank Burns)? Do you have a Radar – a quiet, often over-looked person who manages to make miracles happen with limited resources? Do you have a Hawkeye who has an unconventional approach but if not supported could burnout spectacularly? Take care of your people and give them the space and resources to create, and especially recognition for what they accomplish!
Have you learned any nonprofit lessons in unexpected places?
Photo: By CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.