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Generating value at heart of business for nonprofits

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By Anne Cleveland

While there is an implicit assumption that a nonprofit should not generate a profit, the premise is profoundly inaccurate and untenable. I suspect that all business ventures assume that they are filling a need and providing a valuable service — whether they are ConocoPhillips providing gas for your car or Tiffany & Co. fulfilling a bride’s dream.

The mission of a nonprofit is often altruistic; however, to be successful, it must embrace the very same basic tenets as its for-profit counterparts.

Over the past seven years, I have had the good fortune to lead the Charleston Library Society as executive director into its 269th year with budgets that have always ended in the black. What has become clear to me is that the “business” goals of a nonprofit are just as important as those of a traditional for-profit. Success requires two basic elements.

First, customers must believe there is genuine worth for the products and services they receive.

Second, management must instill in its staff the belief that they are a team whose involvement is important and essential to the mission. Without the “buy-in” of a dedicated staff, it will be impossible to achieve success.

The Charleston Library Society is the oldest cultural institution in the South and the second oldest circulating library in America. It was founded in 1748 by 19 young businessmen and tradesmen who wanted to stay abreast of the latest literary, medical, scientific, historical and economic information in Europe. It satisfied those needs, and as the United States became the center of intellectual and business influence, its collections reflected the change.

When it grew insular in the mid-20th century, its financial base began to flounder because it was no longer paying attention to its core business goal: Satisfying its patrons. By the time I became executive director in 2009, membership had fallen to around 400-450, and the average age of the members was well above 55. Income from dues and contributions paled in comparison to its expenses. It was clear that the mission wasn’t reaching its full potential, and we launched an aggressive attempt to provide an oasis of cultural, intellectual and social activity for a wider and more active membership.

By opening the doors to the entire Lowcountry community and providing an array of programs that resonated, we were able revitalize a healthy membership.

From chamber music concerts to Life-Long Learning classes, from Wide Angle Lunches aimed at young professionals to speakers such as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Pat Conroy and David McCullough, the Library Society has made itself relevant again by providing membership value. With these basic principles, we have grown to more than 3,500 members and now offer more than 200 programs a year.

Success in the nonprofit world isn’t solely based on altruism. It emerges from adherence to the most basic rules of business. Nonprofits must capitalize on the dedication of a mission-driven staff, and they must provide constituents with valuable services for an important, perceived need. When a mission-driven staff is inspired to deliver outstanding programs and services, nonprofits fulfill the very same goals that drive all business entities.

Anne Cleveland is executive director of the Charleston Library Society, which was founded in 1748 as the second-oldest circulating library in America. Find more information at or at the Charleston Library Society at 164 King St. in Charleston.

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April 24, 2017

Well said, by the architect of the Charleston Library Society's resuscitation in the last several years. Anne Cleveland's leadership, creativity and dedication would be equally prized in any for-profit business. The only real difference between for-profits and non-profits is the form of return on investment and who receives it. In the case of the Library Society, the returns have been astronomical and the recipients are the members and the entire community.