At the end of June, CURE Childhood Cancer will close out its fiscal year having raised $4.5 million in the past year. This is no small feat considering the Atlanta based non-profit was raising less than $1 million a year just nine years ago, and the remarkable growth has spanned years of deep recession in the U.S. This fundraising achievement is the result of a small but successful non-profit which has built bridges across philanthropic and corporate communities and has earned the respect of medical professionals and institutions across the U.S. According to the Executive Director, Kristin Connor, an important strategy to growth has been to "think like an entrepreneur."

"We approach our day to day operations like a small business with heart," says Connor who has grown CURE Childhood Cancer's revenue 400% since joining 9 years ago. "Many aspects of a non-profit organization can translate to a small business counterpart, and that is how we handle our financial goals, patient and family services objectives, employee, donor and volunteer relations and our research investments."

Ken and Darla Beam, Founders of the Texas Alliance for Homeless Pets, would agree. Their non-profit, dedicated to changing the systemic issues behind pet overpopulation in Texas, has grown from humble beginnings into an organization able to put on regular large-scale adoption events that involve a significant number of Dallas-area shelters, attract hundreds of visitors, and result in an impressive amount of pet adoptions each year.

The Beams also attribute their non-profit's success to factors just as important in the business world, such as an unwavering commitment to their team, impeccable service, and a focus on leadership and networking.

Below are 5 lessons every small business can learn from these two non-profits:

  1. Appreciate your customers, partners and suppliers. "As a non-profit dependent on donations in order to advance our mission and solve the problem we were formed to solve, we never take a donor, sponsor or volunteer for granted, and we can never say 'thank-you' enough," explains Connor. "Having their names and logos published in CURE Childhood Cancer's materials and on event signage is basically what they have paid for and may be recognition, but it certainly does not constitute appreciation. Personal, hand-written notes are a part of our every day, and public thank yous are very important. Additionally, we make regular calls to sponsors, donors and supporters to be sure they know how much they are appreciated." The same should be done by every small business. Whether this translates for you to top customers, suppliers or industry partners--remember the importance of showing appreciation every chance you get. No matter how much money companies make by being associated with you, every company wants to feel genuinely appreciated and recognized for their contribution to your success.
  2. Recognize and sincerely appreciate your employees. Non-profits need committed and devoted team members as they strive to solve a difficult social problem, such as that of pet overpopulation. But, as Ken Beam explains, that commitment and passion can only be sustained if nurtured by leadership. And, even without the emotional factor that often exists working for a non-profit, small businesses also need to fuel the dedication and commitment of their employees. Ultimately, happy employees will be your brand ambassadors on and off the job. Make sure your C-level team members (Board members for non-profits) know your staff department heads by name and the programs they manage. And, when employees perform exceptionally well or put forth an exceptional effort, make sure you have channels to announce these achievements. Not only will you be showing these individuals appreciation (make sure it's sincere!)--but also reminding the entire workforce that a job well done never goes unnoticed.
  3. Invest in marketing. Whether you're a service or product--marketing will be critical for success. Non-profits are under such pressure to dedicate nearly all of their resources to "mission critical activities" that it can be a difficult decision to invest in marketing. But it is absolutely essential in order to grow. Nonprofits must be equipped to tell their stories in an effective, professional manner in order to attract donors and volunteers who care about the organization's mission. Full disclosure: Texas Alliance for Homeless Pets engages my company, The Marketing Zen Group, to handle their website, blog, email newsletter, and social media presence. That way, they can be sure their message is truly reaching their intended audience. The same is true for small businesses. With limited financial resources, small businesses may be reluctant to invest in marketing. But it's critical in order to tell your story and attract customers, clients and supporters.
  4. Set real goals. Saying you hope to "do better than last year" isn't a serious goal. As a non-profit, CURE Childhood Cancer has fundraising goals across 3 major areas: support from individuals, corporate support and special event revenue, and they have specific dollar amounts attached to each for the next year, 3rd year and 5th year. Your small business may be about growth in other ways, by adding more locations, increasing workforce or expanding your product line. However you measure your growth and profit potential--you must cite them to reach them. Put the numbers down on paper along with a plan to get there to demonstrate to your team how serious the future is to your business.
  5. Surround yourself with top advisors. All non-profits usually have a Board of Directors. Some also have Advisory Boards. These are people with personal connections to the organization's mission and/or special expertise that is relevant to the organization's goals. Small businesses also need to find advisors who share your vision and are willing to share their knowledge to help you grow. Consider inviting leaders from your community, retired industry experts, even customers to offer their insights into your service, products, and marketing.

While non-profit organizations and for profit businesses differ in certain respects, many of the lessons learned from growing a small non-profit to a mid-size, leading organization are directly translatable.

Shama Hyder is founder and CEO of the award-winning Marketing Zen Group, an integrated online marketing and digital PR firm. She is also an international speaker, bestselling author, and a regular media correspondent for major networks ranging from Fox Business to Bloomberg. Connect with Shama on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.