The Move from Corporate to Nonprofit

by Joan Garry

You have made a transition to nonprofit leadership. It’s quite different here. Here are some tips.

We are on the cusp of a huge leadership gap in the nonprofit sector as more and more boomer leaders retire. Search committees and executive recruiters will need to look at more and diverse ponds for leadership candidates. As a result, we see (and will continue to see) lots of “fishing” in corporate America ponds.

Unfortunately, nonprofits are not always welcoming of folks without years in the nonprofit trenches. As a product, originally, of the corporate world, I remember that pretty well.

There were folks who saw me as unqualified, without the “chops” for the gig. I hadn’t paid my dues. I didn’t understand or appreciate the trenches and there was of course a risk that I just might attempt to inject an “evil” corporate paradigm into the consensus driven world of advocacy. This skepticism even found its way into the press.

Ridiculous, right? Infuriating, yes? Especially when this criticism comes from your own community, the one you have raised your hand to advocate for. I only wanted to help.

But there is no question – you absolutely can transition to nonprofit leadership and be successful with no prior professional nonprofit experience. I did it.

So, at the risk of overstepping, I’d like to tell you about a few of the lessons I learned and pitfalls I overcame. It might come in handy if you are hunting for a new leader or if you are this new leader I describe.

First, what to avoid.

Three Things Not To Do

  1. Assume you have nothing to learn from playing in the nonprofit sector. I hired a senior staffer from the for-profit communications field. He came to share his extraordinary expertise with “the little people.” The expertise part was fine. Treating your colleagues like clueless idiots?  Not so much. I wish I realized this was happening much earlier.
  2. Induce culture shock. Do not find a donor to underwrite McKinsey to come in within the first three to six months. Culture shock is very bad for the organization and creates serious distrust. In the spirit of full disclosure, I did bring in McKinsey but I waited 5 years. There were still process bumps but the end product was first rate.
  3. Set no boundaries. Draw some obvious and clear boundaries between you and the Board of Directors. I know you were Chairman of the Board of the Manhattan Day School (an Orthodox Yeshiva) and so you’re used to being one. I wasn’t a board member, but rather hand been recruited by a friend on the board. In any case, steer clear of that comfort zone and spend a lot of time being where you may not feel quite so at home.

5 Keys To Success For the New CEO With No Nonprofit Experience

  1. Find an ally who can shepherd you through this new land. Identify someone who has been working on this cause forever and create an alliance. Ask them to mentor you. Even better if the person’s politics is to the left of yours.
  2. Meet and create relationships with your colleague CEO’s – large and small. Your new ‘industry’ will be filled with all sorts of organizations, many doing good work, many struggling, many whose mission is incomprehensible. Regardless, meet them, attend gatherings of them. Show that you care about their work and that as a whole, you are an orchestra fighting to end a disease, advocate for minorities or working to end hunger.
  3. Give your staff members a voice. There are no year end bonuses. There are long hours and they are different long hours from the ones you left behind in corporate America. These hours are more intense, typically more personal. There is (or should be) a passion for your cause in each staff member. What do they get instead of a year end bonus? A voice. They have skin in the game and points of view and your work will benefit from their thinking. It can be a bit messier but that comes with the territory.
  4. Be humble. Your staff may not give you the benefit of the doubt. You came from the “outside” and have not been in the trenches. So be careful not to unintentionally disrespect your staff when you see something obvious that requires a clean up.
  5. Create a quick hit. Something that illustrates how your past experience in corporate America has real advantage to the organization / movement. Be sure that this advantage is obvious to your staff. Market that. Humbly.

The thing that truly matters the most is that you are passionate about the mission and that you are fiercely determined to make a difference. And your history truly suggests that you are. But you must recognize what you don’t know and that you understand that you can’t just know the nonprofit sector; you have to appreciate the messiness that can come with giving people a voice, working to reach consensus and working with colleagues who are not always on the same page with you.

You must understand from the get go that – if you do it well – you will get so much more than you give.

Did you come to the nonprofit sector from the corporate world? What was your experience like? Tell us below in the comments.

3 thoughts on “The Move from Corporate to Nonprofit”

  1. I’m 90 percent with you, Joan. All but the part about not inducing culture shock. Presumably, boards hire CEOs with for-profit experience because they want exactly that. Why look for an outsider, if he or she isn’t going to shake things up?
    As you rightly pointed out, that needs to be done with the consideration and understanding of the staff — some may not like it and leave, some may be reinvigorated and stay. But, why dawdle? When it’s time to turn the ship, best to start rowing together right away.

  2. First off, I’ll take 90%. With 40% in baseball you are an MVP 🙂 Great insights all. And about culture shock, I agree with you – just cant do it too quickly and without a lot of transparent internal communications.

  3. Thanks again Joan. I am an ED, who took this job with no prior experience in the non profit world. Although I was a volunteer for the agency for 12 years, and had extensive experience in the actual work of the agency. I’ve completed 4.5 years now.
    I agree with all of your points. I went to school, read lots of books, took several non profit management books. and BLOGS, including this one were essential. .
    Listening to staff, I didn’t really make any changes for 90 days as I listened and got to know my staff. And HUMILITY, was my number one character trait, I sought to foster. Great advice.

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