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From For-Profit to Not-for-Profit: Exploding Myths About Sector Switchers

December 09, 2013

A. Wayne Luke is managing partner of the not-for-profit practice at Witt/Kieffer, a leading executive search firm. A bridger himself, he has served in various corporate and not-for-profit roles over the course of his career and has served on the boards of  the Metropolitan Atlanta YMCA, the Atlanta Opera, Zoo Atlanta, and the Georgia Tech Alumni Association.

Bridging-the-gapIn most cases, these fears are unfounded. Corporate executives and other successful professionals tend to be pragmatic in approaching a major career change and often are genuinely passionate about finding a new challenge. Then, too, a sector switch invariably involves a cut in pay, which, when accepted, almost always is a clear indication that the individual in question is serious about his or her commitment to the not-for-profit  world.

In fact, there are many myths about bridgers in need of debunking, or at least denting. In my experience, foundations and nonprofits that open themselves up to leaders from the for-profit sector also open themselves up to new insights, new (and often better) ways of doing things, and the possibility of positive transformation. Here are a few of those myths:

Myth 1: The leap from for-profit to not-for-profit is a "bridge too far" for most for-profit executives. While the two sectors are indeed different in many ways, they're not as distinct as they once were. Out of necessity, the nonprofit world has adopted a more businesslike approach to fundraising, management, and strategic planning. Donors no longer are willing to write a check simply because an organization has a compelling mission statement. Instead, they're looking for, and in many cases demanding, a clearly articulated vision for how their money will be spent and metrics for determining a return on their investment. For-profit leaders take such demands in stride.

At the same time, most experienced business leaders have familiarity with nonprofit organizations — their past employers likely had affiliations with charities and foundations through corporate social responsibility programs, and many would-be bridgers have served on nonprofit boards. This puts them in an excellent position to understand the differences between the two sectors.

Myth 2: Bridgers don't thrive in mission-driven cultures.Yes, business leaders switching to the nonprofit sector will be evaluated by how well they understand and are able to advance an organization's mission — as well as whether they are willing to listen, learn, and participate in a more collaborative environment. Smart businesspeople usually get a handle on these challenges right away by asking themselves, "What does it take to succeed here?" and making adjustments accordingly.

Cultural issues should be raised and dispensed with in the interviewing process. The hiring nonprofit's board or search committee must engage in candid conversations about mission and culture with all candidates. Modern methods of leadership assessment also can reveal whether a person has a certain aptitude or affinity for mission-driven work. If a bridger comes into a new job and says, "Trust me . . . I"ve been in business a long time," that's usually an indication the hiring committee did not properly size up the candidate.

Myth 3: Bridgers are looking to dabble. There's a perception out there that bridgers are moving into the not-for-profit world as a way of throttling back from the demands of the for-profit world and easing into their retirement years. There may be some truth to this. What inevitably happens, however, is that once bridgers make the switch, they become so engaged in the mission of and challenges confronting their new organization that they work as hard as, or harder than, they ever did. Executives tend to be high-achievers who are driven by challenge, regardless of the context.

Myth 4: Salary is a deal-breaker. No, nonprofits can't compete with the private sector in terms of compensation packages. But the gap is not as great as it used to be — maybe 20 percent or 30 percent today, whereas in the past it would have been closer to 60 percent. Indeed, the narrowing of this gap is one of the factors driving the bridger phenomenon. Does the corporate executive who switches sectors make less? Yes. Will he or she have to live on a bread-and-water diet? Hardly.

 Myth 5: Most nonprofit organizations aren't ready for an outside change agent. In many cases when a bridger comes in with new ideas and practices, a nonprofit's employees will surrender to a natural fear of the unknown. These fears will fade, however, if the new leader is able to achieve some early successes — for example, convincing a major donor to increase his or her commitment, or using newly adopted metrics to demonstrate positive outcomes as a result of the organization's programs. Bridgers will be embraced as their ideas and suggestions begin to gain traction.

A smart leader also understands that "job one" is to get in the boat and start rowing. It's hard for a leader to secure buy-in for his ideas and advance change if the rest of the staff views him or her as a "back-seat" admiral.

Myth 6: Nonprofits can't recruit on a national level. Many nonprofits are eager to hire a high-profile corporate executive but often feel as if they must "settle" on someone local. This needn't be the case. I know many bridgers who are more than willing to uproot themselves and move across country for a job that is meaningful and substantive. With the help of the Internet, expanding networks of nonprofit leaders, and support from executive search firms, nonprofits, more than ever before, are in a position to leave no stone unturned in identifying and choosing potential leaders.

Of course, one of the biggest mistakes an organization can make is to hire to its strengths. Instead, nonprofits should be looking to hire leaders who bring an "additive" skill set that enables them to grow and thrive. For this reason alone, nonprofits should view and evaluate bridgers more for the opportunities they present than the (often false) concerns they raise.

Have some tips or thoughts you'd like to share about the "bridger" phenomenon? Feel free to share them in the contents section below.

-- A. Wayne Luke


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Posted by Dan  |   December 10, 2013 at 03:32 PM

Personally, I think our for-profit sector should be recruiting a few more nonprofit executives. Any thoughts on how to make that happen? In your experience, do for-profit executive search firms ever look at the nonprofit sector? Why or why not?

Posted by Steve  |   December 11, 2013 at 01:50 PM

It is a big jump going between sectors, but it is certainly doable and many, many people have made the jump quite well and thrived in both environments.

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