May 14, 2009

Do We Over-emphasize Culture?

In this commentary on the 2009 Bridgespan Group report, Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits, CEO Jeanne Bell of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services discusses cultural fit and how for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike use it to screen candidates for their organizations.

By: Jeanne Bell

A commentary on Finding Leaders for America's Nonprofits

I am very interested in the researchers’ conclusions about the “surprising” role of “cultural fit” in screening for-profit candidates for nonprofit leadership. The researchers suggest that nonprofits are demonstrating “insularity” and are missing out on great talent because of this undue emphasis. I have two reactions to their surprise.

First, I think that when for-profits articulate their corporate cultures, it is seen as strategic and critical to attracting the right kind of aligned talent to their enterprises. But somehow when nonprofits do, it is seen as insular, as if attracting the right kind of aligned talent to their enterprises is not as important. A quick Internet search of a couple of major companies confirms that for-profits love to talk about culture. On its website, Google names its employees “Googlers” and its buildings the “Googleplex.” The site informs us that “when not at work, Googlers pursue interests from cross-country cycling to wine tasting, from flying to frisbee.” Similarly, GE on its website claims that its culture is in fact one of its “innovations.” The site further says that their particular culture is the “unifying force” for the company worldwide. Organizational culture is celebrated in for-profits and absolutely used as a screening factor in hiring. Why would nonprofits be different?

Related Content

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

Read the executive summary

Download a collection of the commentaries [PDF]

Second, I think there is something deeper being captured when nonprofit leaders prioritize the “cultural fit”: personal values. For many people who work at nonprofits, one of the great joys of doing so is the convergence of their personal and professional values—the privilege of working all day on something that has deep personal significance. For us, “organizational empathy”—which the researchers suggest ought to be sufficient to qualify someone for the job—sounds a bit too much like an accommodation. As someone who works with nonprofit CFOs regularly, I do believe that the ones who care passionately about the missions of their organizations perform better. Not only do they fit into the corporate culture better—which is important to success at any business—but they make the connection between their work and the social impact of the organization. I see this leading to better performance even in such seemingly technical job functions as budgeting and analysis.

There are thousands of people working in for-profits right now who could fit very well into a nonprofit culture and who share the passions and values of many of the nonprofits who are seeking new leaders. But just like any for-profit would, these candidates should expect nonprofits to actively screen them for organizational culture fit; it’s what Jim Collins called, “getting the right people on the bus.”

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