By Marcia Ballinger, Ballinger|Leafblad and Kate Barr, Non-Profits Assistance Fund
As executives working in the non-profit sector, some of our time is spent answering questions from people outside of the sector. One of the most common questions that we get these days comes from corporate business leaders, and sounds something like this: “I’ve enjoyed my career in business, but how can I move into the non-profit sector?”
It is a good question. And, there is some good news to report.
The good news is that there is a wave of retirements in leadership positions in the non-profit sector. These retirements are opening up more opportunities at the senior level. This wave was predicted by employment researchers and it is here now.
Moreover, depending upon the organization, there are not always back-up leaders who are trained and ready to step into the top spots. Because there is not always an obvious “successor” in many situations, some new leaders of non-profits will come from outside the organization, and in some cases, outside of the non-profit sector.
We’ve also found that boards of non-profits have become increasingly open to considering executive candidates from the business sector. They can see the “transferable skills” that an executive candidate from business might bring to the organization.
Again, good news. Right?
Yes. But there is bad news, too.
If you are that business executive who wishes to lead a non-profit, you are not alone. While it’s true that there is a wave of retirements in the non-profit sector, there is an equal wave of business leaders thinking about moving into non-profit leadership, either as a career change, or as a sunset last assignment. There is no shortage of competition.
So, how can you stand out in this sea of business leaders who are chasing the same thing as you are? What can you do to make yourself an attractive non-profit candidate?
First, make sure you are serious. Don’t go into non-profit work if you think it is easy. It isn’t. Non-profit organizations are as complex and challenging as any business. There may be multiple funding sources. Resources can be scarce. There’s the “double bottom line” to manage that balances financial sustainability with mission-driven impact. By comparison, achieving corporate goals can be very straightforward. A non-profit objective might connect to multiple stakeholders and require inputs from numerous sources.
Further, don’t go into non-profit leadership because you seek a more leisurely pace. Expect to work just as hard and just as many hours in the non-profit sector as you did in the for-profit sector. Most non-profit executives who have come from the corporate sector are stunned by the difficulty of the work and the level of effort required. “I have never worked harder in my life,” is a common refrain.
Certainly, don’t “pretend” to be serious about working in the non-profit sector as a hedge until a for-profit job comes along. A lack of passion for making this change will be readily apparent.
Second, take a close look at where your background could best fit a non-profit organization. A career as an attorney might be better preparation to run a legal aid organization than a men’s chorus, for example. If you are a CFO, you might be more suited to run a micro-lending organization than a counseling agency.
You will always be a better candidate when some part of your background is directly connected to the work of the organization. Telling a board that you have a personal interest in gardening does not prepare you to run the state nursery and landscape association, for example. When we hear corporate executives talk about moving into non-profit positions, we find that they tend to focus on themselves. “I want to give back,” or “I want to be connected to a mission,” or “I’ve always wanted to work in a non-profit.” That’s fine, but you should be prepared to talk about where you add value. Answer the question “What, specifically, will you bring to a leadership role in a non-profit?” Your answer will need to be relevant and practical. That you like people, or are service-oriented, will not suffice.
Be clear about what you do and what you do not bring to any non-profit position. That includes both your paid work experience as well as volunteer activities. Be aware that if you do not have volunteer non-profit board service or significant volunteerism in your background, you will be at a real disadvantage. It is probably not going too far to say that if you’ve not yet amassed some significant non-profit board experience, including leadership roles, it will be tough for you to convince anyone that you have a real understanding for how a non-profit works at the executive level, and that you know what you are walking into. Of course, serving as a board member is not the same as leading in a non-profit on a daily basis, but it is a start. If you think a non-profit job is in your future, find non-profit board and committees to serve on and dig in now!
We must also say that full-time non-profit work is not for everyone. Be aware that you might not be suited to non-profit work, stylistically. You might find it a good idea to invest in some assessments or coaching that can give you feedback about your work style and tendencies. It is quite possible that the process of running a non-profit with multiple stakeholders and multiple goals may not be to your taste, in the long run. It usually takes longer to make decisions. Consensus and buy-in from groups is required more often. You’ve got to earn commitments in different ways, where often “incentives” are intangible. Sometimes the best thing that can happen is to discover that you are not suited to a given direction. It could be a gift to be told “You might not like this.”
Lastly, fundraising. Most non-profit organizations list fundraising as one of the most important requirements for a new leader. If you have not done fundraising, such as on a development committee, this may be an insurmountable hurdle. Do not tell a board of directors that fundraising can be easily figured out. Do not say that you will surely be a great fundraiser because you are a “people person,” or because you know sales and marketing. Fundraising is a core organizational activity, and its own distinct field of study and set of competencies. Without meaningful fundraising background, look to work at non-profit organizations with other dominant funding streams, such as predictable and reliable earned income. There aren’t many, but they are out there.
So you STILL want to go into non-profit? If yes, then good for you! You have asked yourself important questions about using your skills and talents in a new and possibly more meaningful way. That might bring you to a role in the non-profit sector. But, be cautious. Know yourself. It will take a combination of background, passion, and preparation to land at the top of a non-profit.