In my last post, I described an alternative conception of US higher education that supplants the current thinking of the student-as-customer and the problems it engenders. I proposed that we should abandon that model for one that promotes the individual student as a consumer with society as a whole being the customer. This new paradigm merges the best of the traditional view of higher education as a meritocracy to improve society and the trending view of higher education as merely a private benefit for student careers. It also identifies the college mission as the product each institution must deliver to society.
I further suggested that this new paradigm can offer insights into most mission-driven organizational systems.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, Your MISSION Is Your PRODUCT
This one should be pretty apparent. Your mission is a purpose as viewed through the lens of your organization’s values. It is what you are trying to produce or to deliver on. It keeps you centered and on track and, deployed wisely, it can be a strong incentive for both staff and leadership.
If you were a carmaker, your product would presumably be cars. But in that for-profit world, where the main value is to make money by making cars, if the same company could make money by doing something else, such as floating car loans or manufacturing buggy whips, then those would be viable options for production and profit too.
If “product” is too concrete, think of your mission then as a process or service. Whatever the analogy, your mission is both the purpose and the overarching desired outcome of your organization.
In the mission-driven and nonprofit world, the focus should largely be on the mission. If your mission is to support developmentally disabled kids, then that is what you do. You cannot get sidetracked by a sudden impulse to start a food bank no matter how altruistic and beneficial doing so may be—at least not without considerably altering the scope of your mission and your organizational structure.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, Your CLIENTS Are Your CONSUMERS
Just as students are a college’s principal consumers, your clients, the people and organizations you directly provide services to and/or support, are your consumers, not your customers.
So what is the difference? In the for-profit world, a customer is an individual who buys or receives a product or service; in the case of nonprofits, this would be whatever good or service fulfills the mission. With for-profits, the consumer is an individual who directly uses the product and is often one-and-the-same with the customer who makes the purchase. It is similar for nonprofits although the consumer and customer are more often separate. In many cases, the mission itself is to supply some good and/or service to clients who are not paying for that service, at least not at market value. Consequently, they consume (literally or figuratively) the goods and/or service you provide.
For instance, if the mission of your organization is to develop and provide studio space to up-and-coming artists, those artists become the consumers of whatever space and assistance you offer. This holds true even if you charge a reduced or at-cost rent. If they were clients in a purely transactional relationship in which you offer the space at an undiscounted or unsubsidized market rate, you would just be a commercial realtor. Another example: If your mission is to support a particular political cause by producing studies in line with your position, those who read and apply those studies are your consumers.
In a Mission-Driven Organization, SOCIETY Is Your CUSTOMER
At its simplest, the customer is that individual who pays you to deliver your product. For nonprofits and mission-driven organizations, this would be society itself, which, one way or another, is paying you to fulfill your mission. The payment could be through direct donations, foundation grants, government entities, or some other source. The relationship here is evidently transactional, but, just as with higher education, the idea is that your mission (product) is transformational.
Mission-driven organizations presumably serve a higher cause by adding value to society. In some cases the service to clients will directly benefit society, such as supporting economic development or promoting beautification or conserving land. In such cases, the consumer and the customer overlap or blend. Consider, if your nonprofit mission is to promote a political point of view, the very act of doing so would, in accord with your convictions, advance society. Your political opponents, though, may differ on that assumption.
More frequently, the service to society is indirect or cumulative, such as educating or feeding those in need or expanding the reach of the arts or providing religious instruction. If you are a church, your direct reach only extends as far as your congregation or the recipients of your charity, but presumably you intend the value to your individual constituents will extend through them to improve society in part or whole.
Of course, the societal improvements envisioned would be peculiar to each organization and its mission, and such improvement is in the eye of the beholder.
Transformation over Transaction?
As in my example from higher ed in Part 1, these distinctions matter. When in the past the focus of US higher ed was heavily on the mission as a transcendental aspiration and on the claim that higher ed was primarily a meritocracy that inherently benefitted society, students tended to get lost in the sauce. When the paradigm shifted to the student-as-customer model, the focus on societal benefit faded, and the student-university relationship became much too transactional. A balanced approach, with the college mission as product, society as customer, and the student as consumer, eliminates false dichotomies and recalibrates the relationship of higher ed to its product, customer, and consumer.
This healthy model can inform all mission-driven organizations albeit with two obvious caveats:
Nonetheless, considering your mission-driven organization in these terms can help you grasp its overall purpose while reconceptualizing and balancing the relations among its functions. Shifting emphasis to one area does not necessarily mean shifting focus away from another so long as their interdependence is understood. Assuring that the mission (product) is paramount does not warrant neglecting clients (consumers) or the overriding contribution of your organization to society (customer). Nor does it mean that focusing on the mission overrides organizational concerns, such as treating staff with the same dignity you seek for your clients. Doing good starts at home.
The relationship I describe deemphasizes the transactional and, when properly appreciated and calibrated, can guide your organization to be appropriately and powerfully transformational.
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Every organization needs to understand how its processes function, but in the world of nonprofits and other mission-driven organizations it can be difficult to maintain perspective on how that works exactly. What are the most important pieces of the operation, and how do they perform together? How do you maintain transactional relationships while fulfilling a transformational mission? Developments in nonprofit higher education in the US may offer insight.
For decades now, nonprofit and public higher education has endured an ongoing paradigm shift that reimagines students as customers. This shift ostensibly offers some considerable improvements over older models that assumed college to be primarily a meritocracy, such as a focus on providing students more access to college services to help assure their success. In practice, though, it has tended to displace the focus on academic matters in favor of concerns about student satisfaction, with decidedly mixed results. It also has contributed to more intensive attention to college marketing and pricing, which in turn contributes to a trend of students making initial college selections or even transferring from school to school in search of the best deals and not necessarily the best fit.
While finances are critically important, of course, and have always played a role in the choice of college or whether to go to college at all, decisions based solely or largely on fiscal anxiety seldom benefit students in the long run. Nonetheless, the conceptualization of college has gone from an overemphasis on academia as a transformational meritocracy to a predominantly transactional model.
Worse still, culturally and politically, this new model has recast higher ed primarily as being a benefit to individual college students rather than as a collective good, a perspective that is reflected in US education policy. From the individual student standpoint, college pricing and costs (which are discrete considerations) have risen precipitously as government subsidies dwindle. Furthermore, this shift has wrought an epistemological crisis that arguably can be seen playing out in our politics today where speculation and fabrication hold nearly the same status as a fact-based understanding of reality. The new perception is that college no longer exists primarily to make you better informed and even smarter. College is just there to get you a better job.
Meanwhile, simply going back to the old model of higher ed as a meritocracy for the select is not a desirable option either. That system tended to treat students almost as interchangeable or even disposable commodities. The individual student’s success mattered little to an apparatus that basked in its own sense of inherent value and entitlement and touted a supposed transcendental potentiality. Under those assumptions, if you struggled as a student, you deserved to struggle. The system itself could not be at fault or offer relief. Meanwhile and in sharp contrast, the scions of the privileged class were treated as though their parentage and social stratum were merit enough to for them to succeed no matter how inept they actually were. We can see this assumption still playing out among the most elite institutions.
Therefore, we need a new paradigm. What if, as Yan Dominic Searcy, a dean at California State University, Northridge, has proposed, rather than customers or end purchasers, the students were regarded as the consumers of what the college offers? In this formulation, the student is not involved in a purely business transaction but is simply an ancillary beneficiary of a transaction that the college conducts with its real customer: society itself. While the student may still (or not) contribute tuition, the people—usually via the government—significantly funds and benefits from the individual student’s education and its contribution to the growth of an educated populace. This public funding is clearest in public higher ed, but even private nonprofit institutions do and have long received a variety of both direct and indirect government and charitable subsidies.
For clarity on the distinction between a consumer and a customer, you can do a simple Google search for the terms. Shockingly, dig a little deeper and you may find that there are many discussions in higher ed literature, including peer-reviewed research papers, that seem to use the terms interchangeably, which hampers full understanding of the matter within higher ed. This seems particularly the case with UK studies for some reason.
A simple way of thinking about this distinction is to consider a gift. If I purchase a mug to give to you, I am the customer (the purchaser), and you are the consumer (the end user). If I keep the mug for myself, I am both the customer and the consumer.
Think of all the cheesy gift shops you have ever seen, particularly in tourist areas. Many of these are filled with products you would never buy for yourself but will still readily purchase to fulfill some need to return home laden with memorabilia to give others.
Recall just about any trip you have taken to a tourist site. No doubt, you have seen store that sells mugs or other trinkets as souvenirs. Perhaps you have no need of a new mug. Perhaps you have no desire to possess a chintzy reminder of your trip. Or, perhaps the mug is just plain awful. Whatever the case, imagine that you do not want to own this particular mug. Still, at the right price, it could be a suitable gift your neighbor who has been dutifully chasing kids off your lawn while you were on vacation. Thus, you may purchase this artifact and, in so doing, become the satisfied customer. For her part, your curmudgeonly neighbor may, out of guilt, out of a love of kitsch, or out of a need for an extra beverage container, keep the item. Your neighbor is then the satisfied, or at least gratified, consumer.
Thus, an entire industry—the cheesy tourist gift shop—exists in no small part due to this distinction between the customer who wants to buy but not own the product and the consumer who is not the buyer but is content to own it. And I bet, like me, you have no end of mugs, magnets, and other such tchotchkes from places you have never visited and never would visit cluttering up your house.
The economic, cultural, and epistemological advantages of introducing college-educated citizens into society are evident. College is a public good even as it benefits individual students. Ergo, the old dichotomy between the public good and private benefit is and has always been false. In this formulation with the student as the college’s consumer and society as its customer, we can see that the product a college offers is in fact its very mission. Alternately, if you prefer, the mission is a process or a service offered by the institution. However you conceive it, fulfillment of the mission is the desired outcome of institutional success. Importantly, a product, be it the college mission or the souvenir mug, only has value if it benefits both the consumer and the customer. If one is not happy, the whole process is a failure.
This new paradigm allows us to perceive the value of college education to society at large, which would serve to induce that society, via the government, to increase its support of higher education as it once did. Meanwhile, since we can then dispose of the false dichotomy between the societal benefit and the private good of higher education, individual student success can remain an important focus as students gain career and life skills—certainly the most valuable outcome from the student-as-customer model.
Furthermore, understanding this new paradigm for higher ed can inform how other mission-driven organizations regard and present themselves in the world.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.
I am a former English Professor and academic administrator with experience at several institutions in the U.S. and Canada. I have a broad background in management and leadership and have mentored countless faculty, staff, and students, by offering them Tools+Paradigms to help them rethink their assumptions and practices. The Human Tools+Paradigms I present in this blog capture what I have learned from working with them and from my experience and research. You can read more about me here.
Jim Salvucci, Ph.D.