Does Nonprofit Leadership Need a Dose of For-Profit Expertise?
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Private-sector executives who make the leap into nonprofit leadership positions are often viewed with a jaundiced eye. Are they really committed to the not-for-profit world? Will they fit into a nonprofit’s culture? Will their for-profit ideals somehow tarnish their new organization’s mission?

These are legitimate questions, says Wayne Luke, managing partner of Witt/Kieffer’s Not-for-Profit practice, and yet in most cases the concerns are unfounded. Most “bridgers”—corporate executives switching careers into the nonprofit sector—know full well what they’re getting into before they make the transition, and aren’t exactly entering foreign territory.

“The rise of corporate social responsibility as an essential component of today’s business models has brought a greater appreciation of mission and charitable purpose to most corporate executives,” Luke writes in “Bridgers on Board,”  in the most recent issue of Corporate Responsibility magazine. “Look around at a typical not-for-profit board and you see mostly members who hail from private sector companies.”

Wayne Luke

Wayne Luke

Meanwhile, Luke says, the nonprofit landscape is more competitive than ever. “Nonprofits can no longer survive on an inspiring mission and a few diehard donors,” he writes. “Now more than ever, they must run themselves like businesses, driven by strategic imperatives and the need to meet targeted outcomes and guarantee stakeholders an impact return on their investment.” In this regard, “bridgers bring a lot to the nonprofit table,” Luke says.

Luke also describes the bridgers phenomenon in the recent issue of Philanthropy News Digest. In “From For-Profit to Not-for-Profit: Exploding Myths about Sector Switchers,”  he discusses six common beliefs about executives moving into nonprofit leadership that should be met with skepticism:

Myth 1: The leap from for-profit to not-for-profit is a “bridge too far” for most for-profit executives. The two worlds are “not as distinct as they once were,” he says.

Myth 2: Bridgers don’t thrive in mission-driven cultures. Smart leaders know how to succeed in various environments, Luke says.

Myth 3: Bridgers are looking to dabble. “Executives tend to be high-achievers who are driven by a challenge, regardless of the context,” he writes.

Myth 4: Salary is a deal-breaker. The gap between sectors is not as great as it used to be, Luke writes.

Myth 5: Most nonprofit organizations aren’t ready for an outside change agent.Bridgers will be embraced as their ideas and suggestions begin to gain traction.”

Myth 6: Nonprofits can’t recruit on a national level. It’s easier to recruit farther and wider for nonprofit leadership today, he says.

“Nonprofits should view and evaluate bridgers more for the opportunities they present than the (often false) concerns they raise,” notes Luke in the PND article. His belief? Hiring bridgers can mean a win-win for the leader and not-for-profit organization.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Writer

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  1. Michael McManus says:

    Myth #7 Executives in non profit organizations are somehow inferior managers to those in the for profit world.

  2. Having made the leap and having grown two non-profits here’s my assessment of the Myth’s:

    1. I think the leap is very far and is very difficult. It requires both parties to truly understand where the other is coming from and needs to blend mission with profit.

    2. There is some truth to this myth, although passion is critical for long term success in for profit or not for profit organizations.

    3. I don’t agree with this. It’s hard to dabble in a senior leadership role of a non-profit. I find tremendous accountability is required and exists.

    4. Many non-profits pay much higher than for-profits so this is an absolute myth although it’s framed as if non-profit execs are paid less.

    5. Show your worth or let your worth be shown. The latter has worked well for me as the former is a bull in a china shop.

    6. I don’t follow the myth so I can’t comment.