May 14, 2009

Build Bridges

In this commentary on the 2009 Bridgespan Group report, Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits, President and CEO Judy Vredenburgh of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America discusses the value of hiring bridgers, and how nonprofits can attract and retain for-profit talent.

By: Judy Vredenburgh

A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits

Bridgespan Group’s newly released study tells us that their original prediction of a serious nonprofit leadership deficit continues, even in this economic downturn.

What an opportunity for nonprofit organizations and for leaders, not only for in-sector professionals but for industry executives, to “bridge”—to use their talents to contribute meaningfully to solving society’s most intractable problems.

Related Content

Download the report Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits [PDF]

Read the executive summary

Download a collection of the commentaries [PDF]

At Big Brothers Big Sisters we’ve grown our leadership ranks, yes, by developing social sector professionals, but also by attracting talent from the business world, in relatively large numbers at national and local leadership levels. Of the nine member executive team at the national office, four functional leaders were recruited directly from companies, two of us came from nonprofits after working for decades in for-profit companies, and three joined the national organization from within the social sector nonprofit field. Not surprisingly, the latter three are our mentoring programs, fund development, and agency development vice presidents. Several of our major market Agency CEOs come from industry, including the leader of our largest affiliate, North Texas, and the head of our home agency, Southeast Pennsylvania. Personally, I’m one of those “bridgers,” whom Dr. Jennifer Howse, president of the March of Dimes, took a chance with 17 years ago.

Our experience completely confirms the Bridgespan Group’s findings—that functional skills matter and are transferable but culture fit is the “deal breaker.”

What are the most salient cultural differences, what are the similarities, and what can nonprofits do to attract, retain, and develop leaders from the for-profit sector in order to help fill our leadership needs? Individuals in both sectors must overcome common misperceptions and biases.

The most significant cultural differences start with passion for the organization’s mission. In nonprofits, employees are much more deeply committed to the organization’s purposes and are more motivated by these compared with their self-interest. Secondly, with so many more legitimate stakeholders, who “own” the mission, nonprofits are more likely to value and incorporate collaborative decision-making. Thirdly, since there cannot be sector-wide definitions of mission success and measurement is often difficult (especially in the short-term) many nonprofits avoid the subject of “bottom line” measurement. Nonprofits, as a generalization, tend to be more process- and structure-oriented and less focused on strategies and objective performance measures to achieve results.

In my view, cultural similarities start with a client orientation and responsiveness. Both sectors value their clients or customers a great deal and know that they are the reason the organization exists. Secondly, the importance of quality execution pervades for-profit and nonprofits equally, both demonstrating an openness to learning and continuous improvement whether of services, products, or processes. Unlike the past, competition pervades both sectors, which puts a premium on the third similarity of innovation. Nonprofits are as likely as for-profits to be innovative; to be entrepreneurial and creative in searching for solutions; and, given the scarcity of resources, maybe even more so. These important, often unrecognized, sector similarities suggest that effective management ought to be transferable to some degree. Given this cross-sector recruitment potential, what can nonprofit organizations do to capitalize on the opportunity?

Let’s begin by recognizing that many for-profit leaders are dissatisfied by the narrow, short-term financial objectives that dominate their organizations, and some yearn to be connected with a socially contributory, mission-driven organization. This seems particularly true as people get older and are more likely to think about the meaning of their lives. We need to be open to candidates who will demonstrate a commitment to our missions, even if they have never worked full-time for our causes.

Very critical to successful transition is the socialization process, where the bridger, without bias, understands in advance the cultural differences, the organization develops a deliberate orientation and development approach (including, dare I say, “mentoring”) and bosses, including board chairs, are comfortable providing performance feedback.

Bringing performance accountability, using data to make decisions, tackling the tough issues of measurement, and managing with fiscal discipline and focus, are what we bridgers with leadership experience in for-profits can mean to nonprofits. On the other hand, nonprofits provide us the opportunity to address stimulating leadership challenges and to work collaboratively while tapping into our deep passions to serve on behalf of causes larger than ourselves. Indeed, when the talent flows across sectors, we as individuals, our communities—and our country—are better off.

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