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What You Can Do With Zilch

Guest Post: Michael Hamill Remaley

I have been to more book parties over the years than I can count.  Usually they are fairly tedious affairs and I spend my time looking at my watch trying to figure out how long I need to stay before slipping out inconspicuously.  But at the celebration for a new book “Zilch,” I wanted to stay until they kicked me out.  Here’s why…

“Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business” is, obviously, aimed at the business market. I agreed to go to the book party mostly because the event was taking place at One Beacon Court, one of NYC’s most coveted new apartment towers, so I could check out how the other half lives. I’m human, I covet.  The building, which houses Bloomberg News on the lower levels, is an architectural gem and the apartments were reputed to be quite spectacular.

The apartment itself was gorgeous, but I barely paused to pick up a lavender-infused summery cocktail as I made a bee-line to one of the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the view from the 54th floor penthouse.  I was mesmerized.

So it is a testament to the power and importance of the book’s core messages that I actually forgot about the view as soon as author Nancy Lublin began to speak to the crowd.  Her message is all about nonprofit creativity and how to do more with less.

As the book’s introduction says, “After years of being told that we in the not-for-profit sector need to be more structured, more profitable, more strategic and more like organizations in the corporate world, the pendulum is now swinging in the other direction. Now we not-for-profits have much to offer organizations that are willing to listen and learn.”

I have long felt that the aggrandizement of the business sector needed to be brought into line with reality (AIG, BP, need I say more), so this is a rallying cry that I can really get behind.  She makes a very strong case that companies now strapped for cash can learn a lot from non-profits that have always had to do their marketing, branding and mission advancement on a shoestring budget.

Lublin has strong credentials to make this case.  As noted so eloquently on the book jacket: “As the founder of Dress for Success, which provides low-income women with interview suits and career development training, she turned a $5,000 inheritance into a global franchise.  Then, as CEO of, she helped turn a struggling startup into one of the largest and most successful youth volunteer groups in the world. Now she draws on her experiences as well as interviews with other ‘rock star’ leaders of flourishing not-for-profits – including Wendy Kopp of Teach for America, Darell Hammond of KaBOOM! Greg Baldwin of, and John Lilly of Mozilla.”

Her chapters explore how creative people can do more with less cash to throw at people, comprehensive branding, utilizing external people, asking smart questions, focusing on customers, maximizing the board, empowering staff, using your organization’s story, realigning your finances, bartering with what you have and generally applying innovation to your work.

I talked to Nancy for a while, and she said this to me, “Not-for-profits and foundations don’t actually make anything. We sell a service or a feeling–and we’re usually selling it to one person (donor) while giving the benefit to another (client). Can you imagine selling a tube of toothpaste to one person–but another one takes it home? How AWESOME a salesperson is that?! Well, that is how not-for-profits have to communicate every day. Its about doing more with less…way less.”

At this point, you may be asking, if businesses have so much to learn from nonprofits and I am a nonprofit or foundation person reading this post, why should I be interested in this book?  Well frankly, while Lubin has done a great job of finding examples where business can learn a great deal from nonprofits, the vast majority of foundations and nonprofits still have much to learn on these topics from leaders in our field.

The book certainly got my creative wheels turning.  I especially liked the very first chapter about helping folks in your organization find inspiration in their work rather than motivation from a paycheck.  A later chapter on finances also had some very concrete advice that I will carry with me for a long time.

The party itself was a great example of Lubin’s premise of doing more with less. The fancy apartment isn’t hers, but she utilized her connections and convinced those who believe in her mission to help her out.  I came for the view, but stayed for the book’s important insights.  That’s the power of Zilch.
Michael Hamill Remaley, a regular contributor to the Communications Network blog, is a communications consultant and also director of Public Policy Communicators NYC.


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