What Nonprofits

Can Learn from

the Chicago Cubs

Everyone knows the Cubs for being the worst team in baseball ever. The last time the Cubs won a World Series, people were still losing their minds over the radio and racing around in Model T’s. It’s usually not ideal to model after an organization that is tremendously good at being consistently terrible, but there are a lot of solid lessons any nonprofit can learn from the Cubbies.

Next Year is Our Year

Even if the Cubs finish at the bottom of the standings, every Cubs fan will tell you we’ll be back next year. It’s the rallying cry of the Cubs!

All nonprofits will face challenges and adversity, be it funding issues, an outdated website, bad office space, long hours, or staff turnover. But by facing those issues with the eternal optimism of a Cubs fan, believing that next year, or next quarter, will be better, you’ll get it done.

More importantly, instilling in your organization a culture of belief and optimism is paramount. Every home game, the Friendly Confines are packed to the gills with Cubs faithful decked out in blue. Those are the people you want around you when you hit a rocky patch (or a rocky 100 years).

But Seriously, This is Our Year

The Cubs made some moves this offseason: hired a new manager, made some big trades, revamped the ballpark. It started to look like the Cubs would be a major contender in a year or two.

But just two weeks into the season, the team was gelling. So the Cubs made some more moves, called up some prospects from the minors, and made the entrepreneurial decision to go for it. This is the year. And maybe they’ll fail at reaching the playoffs this year, but that isn’t the point. They’re taking a shot when they can. A lot of entrepreneurs will tell you to start before you’re ready, because there’s no such thing as being ready. Unproven rookies, first-year coach, stadium still under construction? Screw it, let’s do this Chicago.

At Team Rubicon, we follow a five-year plan. There are some pretty daunting goals in that vision, but it hasn’t stopped the organization from going for it. We believe we can become the greatest disaster response organization in the world, so we made some moves and we’re going for it. Nonprofits have to set audacious goals for themselves — ignore the prospect of failure. And if you do fail? Fail spectacularly. Take your lessons, apply them, and get back up. Next year is your year.

Stockpile Elite Prospects

In a single season, the Cubs moved from the laughingstock of the National League to a team that’s making noise. Obviously, there’s a lot of ways to answer how they did this, but it can be boiled down to how the Cubs value young talent. Rizzo, Bryant, Russell, Soler, Baez; while not household names yet, these young guys are expected to do big things in the majors for years to come. While it’s never a guarantee, talented and young players are usually a good recipe for sustained success.

It’s a rare nonprofit whose staff isn’t stretched thin. Support your goals with bringing in as many volunteers and interns as you can manage. Hire young talent — you think anyone on your Board of Directors knew what Snapchat was two years ago? Those eager young guns did.

Sure, it’s a lot of work on the front end to onboard volunteers or teach young staff the tricks of the trade and get them up to speed, but they’re a tremendous help. When the Cubs called up Jorge Soler, they saw two things: a young dude who can absolutely crush baseballs, and a guy who strikes out over 30 percent of the time (that’s bad). But after a good offseason and some more time in the minors, Soler will called be back up, mashing dingers into the bleachers, and striking out less. It takes time to nurture young talent, but it does pay off. Not to mention it’s a terrific hiring pipeline.

Jorge Soler + baseball = dinger (sometimes).

Time for a Jumbotron

Wrigley Field was famous for being the only professional sports stadium in the country without a Jumbotron and big advertisements around the stadium. While this made for a really unique experience for any baseball fan, the Cubs’ dedication to the past was harming their future. Without big advertising dollars rolling in, the Cubs were finding themselves in a bind, especially when their competitors were raking in hundreds of millions per year in advertising.

Nonprofits can’t afford to ignore marketing anymore. Having a recognizable brand is more important for a nonprofit now than ever. Tell your stories in unique and honest ways, and connect with your supporters online and in-person as genuinely as you can.

At TR, we love social media. But we felt we couldn’t adequately thank our supporters with a tweet or notecard. So, we started looking for our donors on Snapchat and Instagram and sending them a personalized thank you video from our volunteers and staff. Sure, it’s a little out there, but staying stagnant doesn’t win championships. As Cubs manager Joe Maddon likes to say, you never know what you can accomplish unless you try. Embrace technology.

“Let’s Play Two”

Ernie’s enthusiasm for the game was infectious. People like Mr. Cub are the culture carriers for your organization.

Earlier this year, Ernie Banks, known to many as Mr. Cub, passed away. Despite rarely reaching the playoffs in his 19-year career with the Cubs, Banks will forever be known as embodying everything the Cubs stand for — enthusiasm and commitment to greatness. His catchphrase, “Let’s play two!” showed his unmatched enthusiasm for the game. Once, Ernie sustained a concussion, spent two nights in the hospital, sat out the game on Monday, and came back to crush three home runs and a double on Tuesday. To this day, Ernie’s spirit of “Let’s play two” sets the culture for the Cubs.

Understanding and promoting your nonprofit’s culture cannot be overstressed. TR places culture above everything else when bringing aboard new talent. When interviewing a candidate, we’ll ask ourselves, “Would I go to Haiti after the earthquake with this person?” After all, that was the spirit that founded the organization. And if the answer is yes, she’s got a good shot at the position. Because at the end of the day, when someone understands and lives out your organization’s culture and mission, you can count on them to get the job done. Be it three home runs and a double or simply writing some killer copy for a newsletter.

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