October 1, 2009

The Right Way to Shift Sectors

Functional expertise and cultural "fit" are the two most important factors to consider when making the transition from a for-profit to a nonprofit organization, explains Bridgespan former Partner Wayne Luke.

By: Wayne Luke

(This weblog post originally appeared on the  Harvard Business Review website.)

You're thinking about leaving the for-profit world and entering the not-for-profit arena. That's a great idea. Business skills are both needed and valued by the nonprofit sector. Before you make this particular leap, however, remember: Functional expertise and cultural "fit" with a target organization are the make-or-breaks in such a transition. Succeed at one but fail at the other, and your move isn't likely to stick.

Dennis Kelly, formerly a senior marketing executive at The Coca-Cola Company and the president and CEO of Green Mountain Energy in Texas, was able to successfully make the transition—precisely because he paid attention to both sides of the equation. He became CEO of Zoo Atlanta in June 2003, bringing marketing, operational, general management, and project management skills to the table. But the key to sealing the deal on his new career was his passion for working in an environmentally important enterprise that focused on both education and sustainability.

Clearly, Kelly had to have the functional expertise in the first place to arrive at a place that mirrored his personal passions. Many social sector organizations are looking to professionalize operations as they become more complex, tackle bigger problems, and face increasing demand from funders for measurable results. In some fields, such as child and family services, for instance, mergers and alliances have become important tools for growth. Getting at the true promise of such collaborations, however, calls for functional expertise in legal partnerships and contract negotiations.

But even when your skills clearly match the needs of an organization, as Kelly's did, there's still the question of cultural fit. It means asking yourself: Do you demonstrate active listening skills? Do you show empathy with and understanding of the populations being served? Are you able to naturally share and vividly display a genuine sense of mission? Can you make sound decisions in a collaborative environment, influenced by shared values and a passionate purpose?

Recognize that you'll also need to make the most of often-times limited resources when you move to a nonprofit setting. In our work matching executive talent to nonprofit needs, we've seen that the best fits are "stone soup" entrepreneurs: They quickly adapt to operating with fewer resources, less infrastructure, and more fluid processes. They embrace doing the most they can, where they are, with what they've got — inspiring others to do the same.

As nonprofit organizations grow, they will need people who bring functional depth and rigor to the table. Much of that talent will be homegrown, but our research shows that more than 20% of it now comes in from the private sector. If you see yourself in that statistic, be sure to take the time to objectively evaluate your motivations, your professional skills, and the aspects of fit you can offer. Then prepare yourself for a big transition; one that is worth every ounce of effort you'll need to exert.

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