The Key Differences Between the Nonprofit and For-Profit Sectors

by Joan Garry

There are 14 attributes of a thriving nonprofit. Do you know them all?

The phone rings. It’s a familiar voice. A friend. Or maybe even you. Unfulfilled in the corporate world, seeking purpose, considering a leap into the nonprofit sector. The narrative is a familiar one:

“I’ve been unhappy in my work for a long time. The pandemic changed my priorities and I am now considering a move to nonprofit…  

I believe I have a lot to offer as an executive, a manager, and a public speaker. I know how to drive to results and build strategic plans, and I’m known in my company as an empathetic leader. I’ve been leading volunteer efforts here for this XYZ thing and each year we raise more money than the year before.  

I think a nonprofit would be lucky to have my skills, experience and of course my passion for its mission. 

Oh, and I know I’d have to take a pay cut but maybe you can give a sense of how big that cut could be…”

The conversation then continues as I am asked HOW I did it (a pretty tactical question that far too often I answer practically). And, because I am seen as the source of answers, I fall for it and provide the answers they think they need. 

As someone who’s made this transition, I can tell you that understanding the difference between the nonprofit and for-profit sectors goes beyond just knowing you’ll need to tighten your belt. It’s about your heart, your soul, and your willingness to step into a new realm of leadership. 

What I should be doing instead of giving people the answers they think they need to hear, is asking questions that help those who are considering a move into the nonprofit sector reflect on what this move would actually mean.

Far too much is riding on the success of nonprofits. We need strong leaders transitioning from the for-profit sector with not just their eyes wide open, but their hearts too. So if you’re considering a move from the for-profit to the nonprofit sector, you’ve got to dig deep. 

Success in 501c3 land demands a different mindset, a different relationship to power and the volume and quality of relationships is central to impact. It goes a lot deeper than simply answering the question, “What’s it really like working for a nonprofit vs. a for-profit organization?”

So, before you join the ranks of nonprofit “superheroes” (as I like to call nonprofit leaders), here are ten questions you need to ask yourself. They’re designed to help you explore the difference between nonprofit and for-profit leadership, not just at a surface level, but at a heart and soul level.

  1. How will you feel about ‘reporting’ to a person who has never had your job?
    You are not a solo operator and you don’t report to a corporate board filled with other corporate execs who are focused on the bottom line. You “report” to a board of directors who are all volunteers and unless you are lucky, not one of them has ever been a nonprofit executive director. They will add value in many other ways (hopefully), but it will be very different.
  1. Have you ever served on a nonprofit board?
    If yes, how did you feel about your service? Valuable? Valued? How would you as an executive engage your board to serve as ambassadors and thought partners? How did you feel about the pace?
  1. Is your passion for the mission of this organization greater than your anxiety about asking for money?
    I love fundraising because I know that it makes people feel good to give money to causes they care about AND the ‘ask’ creates anxiety. As Ted Lasso says, “You gotta believe.”
  1. Are you excited about sharing your leadership? How about creating real partnerships with key stakeholders?
    I know you. I was you. Type A. Pretty self assured that I make good decisions. It’s different here in the land across the bridge. You will need to build and cultivate a real partnership with your board chair. The kind of partnership where you can be vulnerable and ask for help and thought partnership in solving a problem. You might have clarity about the organization’s vision but you have to be excited about the possibility that your board partners will enrich the decisions the organization makes.
  1. Can you hear a stupid idea without rolling your eyes?
    Board members, volunteers and donors will have ideas. These ideas will come from a good place and they’re dripping with passion. But, often these folks will have insufficient information or context and as a result, the ideas can feel very off. Really reflect on this one because honoring the ideas of folks who care will take you very far as a nonprofit leader.
  1. How would it feel to lead a retreat where people cry?
    One of the biggest differences between working for nonprofit vs for-profit organizations is that emotions are front and center in the nonprofit sector. People show up as their three dimensional selves. They WILL wear their hearts on their sleeves. For me, this was what led me to fall in love with the nonprofit sector…but it’s not for everyone.
  1. What do you see as your options for ‘giving back’ and why do you believe this is the best fit?
    You need to really think about the options available to you — there are TONS of them. You could stay in your current job and be a donor, a board member, or offer pro bono services. Or you could play the field and not align with a single org or cause. Learn about multiple issues. These are options. You need to consider them before putting all your eggs in a single basket.
  1. Decisions can take longer because folks come to nonprofits expecting a voice. How patient are you?
    I think nonprofit leadership demands a very odd juxtaposition of urgency and patience. The big problems nonprofits exist to solve demand patience because often the issues are deep and systemic.  At the same time,you can not let the gas off the pedal. The juxtaposition of these two is not easy to calibrate.
  1. Have you ever donated, volunteered, or attended an event for this organization?
    If you find yourself interested in a role at a particular organization, ask yourself a tough question. Have you been involved in this organization in any way before? If not, why not? And “too busy” is not a good enough answer.
  1.  Do you believe you have as much to get as you have to give?
    I have seen it too many times to count.  For-profit executives who feel that what a nonprofit needs is some business savvy, strong management, clear metrics. Maybe that’s all true, but the for-profit executives who come open to learning, open to the experience, and eager to be enriched by all that makes the nonprofit sector remarkable?  These folks soar. Ask yourself. Are you open? Are you ready to soar?

So before you seek out people like me who left corporate America to ask us a bunch of questions, I highly recommend that you have a 1:1 meeting (just you) and ask yourself a bunch of questions. These ten should get you started.

Curious about what it takes to be an outstanding nonprofit leader? Join me for this free workshop, where I’ll dive deeper into the practices, mindset, and leadership skills of the nonprofit sector’s top superheroes, and help you to fully understand the difference between nonprofit and for profit leadership. Trust me, it’s a real game-changer.