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Dot Com to Dot Org: What to Expect When Employees Make the Transition to the Non-Profit Sector

By Tom Watson on October 15, 2008No Comment

Looking for Talent
According to some estimates, by 2016, as many as 640,000 new senior managers will be needed in the non-profit sector — the equivalent of 2.4 times the number currently employed. This dearth of leadership is due in part to the departure of retiring baby boomers, but also to the significant growth of the non-profit sector as a whole and the need for greater financial and management expertise within leadership ranks. One of the most effective ways to address this deficit is to recruit and train employees from the for-profit sector who offer the skills that are needed by many mission-driven organizations.

“I value business world experience highly because many of the skills needed to succeed in the private sector are equally relevant in a non-profit organization. We need people with strong people and project management skills, a results-orientation, creativity and innovation, decision-making ability, and analytic skills just as much as any Fortune 500 company,” says Becca Bracy Knight, Managing Director of The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems, which recruits and trains urban public school leaders.

The Broad Center has a strong relationship with the business world. Many of the public school leaders they’ve identified and trained have transitioned out of extremely successful business careers themselves, so it’s important for center staff to also have a strong business-world orientation. To that end, Bracy Knight and other senior managers at The Broad Center actively look for candidates with for-profit experience, and are familiar with the process of helping those candidates successfully change sectors.

Valuing Transferable Skills
In many cases, it is easy to identify and appreciate transferable skills. For some positions, such as finance or communications, making the connection between for-profit experience and non-profit needs is fairly simple. But in instances where it is not as straightforward, particularly in high-level leadership positions, it is important to keep an open mind when identifying critical skills and determining how an individual will be able to apply them in a non-profit setting. For example, a candidate with a background in sales may not seem like a good match with a Director of Development position, but when the basic elements of such a role are broken down, it becomes clear that there is a lot of synergy between these types of positions. A successful salesperson knows how to think strategically about prospecting, how to develop strong relationships with clients, lead a sales force, and close a deal; all key skills for a Director of Development.

“The core skills and attributes that I look for in potential hires are the same regardless of professional background: a track record of results, excellent communication skills, judgment and critical thinking, and a commitment to continuous improvement,” says Bracy Knight. “However, if someone is making a transition into the non-profit world I will also make sure to look for signs that he or she seeks work that has meaning and wants to use their skills to make a positive impact on society, rather than just perform the duties or responsibilities for a specific position.”

Supporting the Transition
Perhaps the most important thing non-profit executives can do to ensure an employee’s successful transition into the dot org world is to understand that the employee will be facing a significant culture change and will require extra support. Employees who transition from the for-profit world into a non-profit organization often realize that they speak a different language than their new co-workers both above and below them in the organizational structure. They may be used to different work styles, and they often need to change the way they measure success on a personal and an organizational level.

“I don’t think you can err on the side of too much getting to know each other before someone coming from the for-profit sector starts,” recommends Jeff Lissack, COO of Peace Games, a Boston-based organization that partners with schools and communities to develop and deliver peace and justice education programs. Lissack himself successfully transitioned from the for-profit world, and has worked through some of the common issues that come up when employees cross sectors. Lissack recommends an extended interview and visiting process to help candidates, staff, and executives manage the culture adjustment. “I think there can be lots of surprises on both sides,” says Lissack, “But if you’re open and honest about the challenges and the opportunities and you start out with a realistic set of beginning goals, I think that adjustment process will be much smoother.” In some cases, even starting out with a consulting project before bringing someone on full-time may be helpful, suggests Lissack.

Lissack’s personal experience illustrates both the challenges and the rewards of hiring employees with for-profit backgrounds. Lissack’s background, which includes a Master’s degree in public and private management, almost a decade working in government agencies, and extensive experience running start-up organizations, prepared him well for the transition into non-profit management. Still, he faced some of the more common cultural flashpoints, such as learning how to operate in a highly consensus-driven environment and introducing stronger metrics and accountability systems to an organization that was accustomed to working with less quantifiable goals. “A broad, ambitious mission can mask the importance of prioritization, metrics, and accountability,” says Lissack. “It’s really a cultural change to get people used to stretching so much to do good to see the importance of doing that good more effectively by focusing their efforts and doing more measurement along the way. Even common for-profit practices, like tracking and budgeting people’s time, can be challenging for some front line staff in non-profits.”

Creating Opportunities to Share Knowledge
There are many ways that hiring managers can help a new employee transition into a non-profit organization and work through some of the common cultural challenges. As Lissack mentioned, an extensive getting-to-know-you period can help bridge the culture gap for everyone involved. Other strategies include connecting a new employee with an internal mentor, who could be a founder, board member, or even an executive at a similar organization who has made the same transition from the for-profit sector.

“I brought a lot of strong skills to Peace Games, but what I didn’t have was that highly specific content knowledge,” says Lissack. “Gaining that required a lot of listening and learning, but it was critical in terms of understanding where the organization was and how I could help support the mission.”

As Lissack points out, it is also important to give new hires and current staff a chance to learn from each other. This process builds trust and provides for the transfer of knowledge that’s so critical for an employee who is crossing sectors. The best people to provide this knowledge are the people in the organization who are driving the mission every day. Providing opportunities for a new hire to spend time shadowing these key players and learning from them is crucial for this transfer of knowledge, as is creating opportunities for a new hire to share the specialized skills they bring with them to the organization.

However, one of the best ways to support someone’s transition into the non-profit world may be the simplest: “Value their unique skills and experience and be open to new ideas or practices they bring to the organization from their work in the private sector,” says Becca Bracy Knight of The Broad Center for School Management.

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