3 lessons that non-profits can learn from AirBnB in this crisis

Last week, Brian Chesky, co-founder and CEO of AirBnB, wrote a thoughtful, inspirational letter to all his employees. This letter was a statement of what AirBnB stands for, and a testament to the creative energy and hard work of all employees, which has resulted into what AirBnB is today. He used powerful words like belonging, connection and community. It was a letter which is still being shared thousands of times in social media. It was also the letter where he told his team that 1 in 4 of them were being fired…

This letter, put into perspective, contains three valuable lessons which non-profit organizations can easily apply. Here they are.

Lesson #1: Build Equity

There were no rants on the web, or media drama, or any hint to cynicism about the genuine intent of Brian’s letter to his employees, despite the fact that thousands of those who got it were being told they were being let go from their jobs. How did Brian, as the leader of the AirBnB organization, build such a powerful culture that gave him enough positive equity to make this kind of letter public? Can you imagine scandal-plagued Uber doing that? Or some traditional company like GM or McDonalds getting away with it so easily?

The first lesson which non-profits can take from AirBnB is that they decided to be intentional about their culture from day 1. Intentional means that the founders and their early team took thousands of small, specific actions to shape their culture in the direction they intended, rather than allow their culture to be shaped by the small but random actions taken every day, as most organizations do without even realizing it.

COVID-19 forced AirBnB, who was ready to go public right before the crisis hit, to reduce the size of their operations by 25%. But in a culture which, by design, invited people to be direct, transparent and honest, his letter was the natural thing to do, as was the positive reaction of those being fired.

Luckily for the rest of us, this is a lesson we can apply no matter where we are in our organization’s journey. This crisis presents leaders with an unrepeatable opportunity to re-set culture, and build positive equity for the next crisis, by being intentional about the little things. From starting meetings on time, to complementing someone in public, to saying ‘Hi’ in the morning. Try it!

Lesson #2: Know your ‘Why’

In his letter, Brian Chesky repeats the word ‘belonging’  four times. This is also intentional. Several years ago, AirBnB embarked on a mission of introspection (check out the Fortune article that details it here) to find what motivated them as a team and express it in the simplest of terms – one everybody in the company could easily remember and apply. Specifically, this exercise sought to answer the following 3 questions:

  1. Why do we exist?
  2. What is our purpose?
  3. What is our role in the world?

They found one word which gave them the answer to their ‘Why'”


This little term became their compass. They used it as a filter to make decisions, hire people, treat each other, and evolve their product. Finding their ‘Why’ even made it easy to change their slogan from “Travel like a human” to “Live There” This little term is what enabled their CEO to focus his communication to ensure that not only his letter, but his entire decision on how to fire 25% of his team, reflected their “Why” and was true to AirBnB’s core.

This is a lesson non-profit organizations can apply right away. Take one hour of your team’s time to answer the same 3 questions AirBnB designed for their introspection exercise. You will be surprised how fast they take you to finding your true core, your ‘Why’. Once there don’t forget to live by it.

 Lesson #3: Think Small

Brian Chesky is a regular guest in Masters of Scale, the Podcast hosted by Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin. This free podcast is focused on disseminating the principles by which companies like AirBnB have grown successfully. In one of the episodes, Brian Chesky explains that:

If you want your company to truly scale, you have to do things that don’t scale.

He goes on to explain that from day one, AirBnB focused on giving their first few dozen users the best experience they could possibly have. This experience was literally “handcrafted” by him and the founding team, which is something that obviously does not scale when you have thousands of users. However, this focus on paying attention to the small things remained as part of the AirBnB ethos, allowing them to build a solid culture by the thousands of little actions they took, which is actually the only way to build culture in the first place, rather than designing a ‘grand strategy’ which – let’s face it – is never successfully implemented.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit AirBnB, the CEO knew exactly the little actions he needed to take – from communicating it to accelerating the vesting of Stock Options – to ensure the people he was firing got a fair treatment and left in good spirits.

By thinking small to achieve big things, non-profits can learn that climbing any mountain is achieved step-by-step. Think about the little things you can you do, right now in the middle of this crisis, to delight your stakeholders, even when bad news need to happen. Don’t dismiss this advice!

Building equity, knowing your ‘why,’ and thinking small, are lessons you can apply easily, from a CEO, and a company, who have proven to the rest of the world that in the worst possible times they were equipped with the tools to do the right thing.

That’s good business we can all learn from.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel, HBS Class of 1998.