Hiring from the Corporate Sector: Knowing the Candidates, Knowing Your Organization

Laura Gassner Otting
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More and more, our firm is being asked:

“What about hiring people from the for-profit sector?”

Recent seismic economic shifts, increased board savvy, a retiring but still active baby boomer population, and an increased focus on planned career trajectories available to ambitious nonprofit professionals have changed the landscape of hiring in the sector. Hiring from the for-profit sector is on the rise, and search committees and hiring managers who want to hop on this trend look to this growing pool as a way to further broaden their pipeline of available talent. However, smart search committees and hiring manager know that they must first stop to determine if this pool is a viable source of talent for the particular position, the organization’s needs and its culture. Key to this is understanding who seeks to transition and why, which types of organizations can bring out their best, and proven practices of those organizations that have harnessed the talents that this formidable pool is able to bring to bear.

Who Transitions?

With a diversity of more than 11 million employees, it is fair to say that the nonprofit sector employs just about every type of person you know. People from all walks of life and at every point in their career make the transition into the sector. These include young professionals wanting to get ahead, professionals looking to gain new skills, experienced executives looking for a better work-life balance, baby boomers searching for a more fulfilling retirement, and the outraged, the unfulfilled, and the disappointed simply wanting more from their work.

Many nonprofit employees have built a career dedicated to a singular mission or issue area and have long cast a dubious eye towards those “just wanting to give back.” They assume the job seekers aren’t serious about the transition and may not yet understand the difficulty inherent to the work. However, in our practice, we have found that most people looking to make the transition lack this single focus mission area, an overwhelming wrong they wish to right, or a ten-point statement of a specific area of change. Having spent much of their lives peripherally involved in “doing good,” while spending their gainful employment in the corporate world, most transitioners simply do not know enough about the sector to be propelled into this change by anything more than a desire to do better. Nonprofits should come to accept that this can be reason enough, and endeavor to further understand their motivations in seeking this change in career.

The good news is that job seekers for nonprofit positions have similar motivations to job seekers for corporate positions. It is simply a matter of prioritization; in fact, within each sector, you will find a whole host of individuals who prioritize these motivating factors differently and even differently at different times of their lives or for different positions. Passion for a particular mission is part of this, but only part (see sidebar). It is the job of the nonprofit hiring manager or search committee to judge candidates not on whether they have a similar prioritization, but whether that prioritization will enable them to be most effective in the job at hand in the organization in its current state.

In addition, nonprofits can look to a certain set of traits that successful transitioners have shown to have had in common. CompassPoint Nonprofit Services and the Meyer Foundation published “Daring to Lead 2006” in which they surveyed nearly 2,000 nonprofit executives in eight cities about the future of executive leadership in nonprofit organizations. Their findings still hold true five years later. Among their conclusions, they found that executives are placing new value on strategic planning, entrepreneurial concepts, and business development potential because many of them do not have senior staff in charge of finance or development. Skills from the for-profit sector are proving more and more transferable as nonprofits increasingly understand their value. In tandem, as the face of philanthropy changes, donors are becoming venture focused, more hands-on, and exceptionally demanding of a return on their investment that maximizes capital, resources, and talent. To that end, nonprofits have opened up about what skills businesspeople can bring to the table, and organizations seeking to make these hires should screen for these skills in their vetting processes. These skills include:

Leadership and Influence: For-profit organizations use financial incentives to get the best out of their employees. Most nonprofits do not have such a luxury. Instead, those in the nonprofit sector are challenged to influence their employees in other ways: by constantly connecting daily outcomes to overarching goals, underscoring the importance of personal contributions to the team effort, and encouraging employees to continue to work toward a solution to sometimes overwhelming problems. Solving world hunger doesn’t happen in a day, a week, a month, or even a year, but achieving specific goals along the way allows nonprofits to benchmark their successes to being part of the ultimate solution.

Managing Up, Down, and Sideways: The nonprofit sector is made up of team contributions, not input from individual trailblazers. It is true that nonprofits are founded by dynamic, focused, charismatic superstars, but they are run on a daily basis by those who can ultimately manage well in all directions: up to the senior staff or board; down to the staff; and sideways to constituents, funders, and other stakeholders. For-profit employees who come out of a culture where contributions are recognized and an investment is made in personal growth will find the transition to the nonprofit sector less foreign. While the nonprofit sector is often limited by its inability to fund expensive employee training and exotic corporate retreats, it can allow staff to try exciting things and develop themselves into better contributors.

Delegating with Kindness and Empathy While Demanding Accountability: No one is in the nonprofit sector for the high salaries or fancy perks. Employees aren’t motivated by climbing the ladder one more rung or scoring the bonus on closing the deal. They are there because they believe in the mission of the organization and need to feel that their contributions matter. Managers who delegate with this in mind will likely have the most productive staff.

Adaptability, Flexibility, and Openness in Management and Communications: There is no cookie-cutter type of person working in a nonprofit. Similarly, each of the various internal or external stakeholders you might encounter on a daily basis is different from the next. Those with a desire and demonstrated ability to work respectfully and comfortably with families, community partners, elected officials, donors, media, individual citizens, and other culturally and socioeconomically diverse groups will transition most easily to the nonprofit sector.

Ability to Manage a Broad Portfolio of Responsibilities: Because nonprofits are small—again, many have a budget of less than $1 million—they often pool jobs together. Not all nonprofits can afford a director of development and a director of communications and, instead, hire a director of external relations. Similarly, vice presidents of finance and operations abound. The type of work being done remains the same, but more is asked of each staff member.

Knowing How to Get to Yes: Salespeople spend their days researching potential customers, determining their needs and their timelines, and pouncing at an opportune moment. Nonprofits do the same thing, except with donors, not customers. Knowing when and how to ask for resources, embodying an organization’s mission, and understanding human nature is key to any nonprofit executive’s success.

Managing Dotted-Line Relationships:
Nonprofits rely on the kindness of others to accomplish their missions. Whether it be a large monetary donation or hosted office space, free services like printing, or loaned executives, nonprofits must “make nice” with partners and stakeholders to whom they are indebted. In addition, many nonprofits collaborate with other organizations to accomplish their mission, like a neighborhood-wide cleanup or a statewide reading drive. These stakeholder relationships are dotted, not straight lines. Keeping these partners not only happy but deeply invested is a challenge, and skill at doing this is attractive to the nonprofit sector.

Delivering Impressive Returns: Nonprofit employees are asked to do more with less. A proven track record of delivering results where the resources are limited and time is short facilitates the sector switch. Public dollars come with public scrutiny, and private dollars come with private scrutiny, but scrutiny is scrutiny. The ability to withstand it, and perform well against it, is key.

A Long-Term View: Nonprofits do not judge themselves by quarterly earnings reports. Often, the pace of change is slower. Being able to see the big picture and manage any setbacks along the way with renewed energy and idea, is an important skill for a nonprofit sector employee.

A Distinct Passion for the Work of the Nonprofit: Working in a nonprofit setting can be difficult. Some days it can feel almost impossible. However, a genuine and deep passion for the work, whether specific or in general, as well as an intense respect and love of the people being served, can sustain even the most disheartened.

Further, nonprofits should seek to learn what job seekers might have done to prepare themselves for this transition, and whether or not they have internalized what this change will entail. Look to their volunteer record for engagement with issues areas that matter to them, and determine whether their involvement was as a participant or as a working leader or a project. Look to their board experience if they have any, and determine if they were one of a crowd of letterhead rubber stampers or if they were deeply impactful as the committee chair on a working board. Look to their education and determine if they have gone back to school or pursued some additional skill development to understand the sector, the mission, or the function they hope to serve. Look to the homework they have done to prepare for their application and interview, and determine if they have sought to learn more, build their network, and get smarter about how to be truly of service to the mission. Each of these data points will help you to unpack their level of commitment, seriousness, and understanding and, with that, what their transition will demand.

Remember that as you hold these conversations, you will likely need to combat a series of stereotypes you hold in your head, for better or for worse, about people who have made their career in the corporate world. You may think that they are just what your organization needs and can do no wrong. Conversely, you may feel that they sold out long ago and you want nothing to do with them. In either case, you need to check these perceptions at the door, and seek to learn about the specific job seeker sitting across from you in the interview as an individual, not as a preconceived notion. In doing so, think through the others who will interact with them, whether staff, board members, funders, elected officials, or community members; you will need to use each of their lenses, as well, and your interview questions should venture to confirm these notions or gather enough data to set concerns at ease.

Common Stereotypes You or Your Staff May Hold about Transitioner:
  1. “You expect to be rewarded handsomely for your work while having plenty of support staff.”
  2. “The impact of your work on the bottom line is the only appropriate gauge of success.”
  3. “Raising investment capital is not fundraising.”
  4. “You are looking to work less hard.”
  5. “You value money more than people.”
  6. “You think that nonprofits should be run like businesses.”
  7. “If you really cared about the mission, you wouldn’t have sold out to the for-profit sector so many years ago.”

Which Organizations Should Hire Transitioners, and Which Should Not?

Just as it is true that the best nonprofit will fail to harness the abilities of an ill-prepared transitioner, it is also a reality that even the most promising transitioner will flounder in the wrong nonprofit. Earlier I noted that more and more often our firm is being asked whether we are able to recruit from the corporate world; often our answer is that even though we boast a successful track record in making placements such as these, we might not recommend such a placement for the specific nonprofit asking the question. Before recruiting from the corporate sector, we counsel nonprofits to look at whether or not they are ready.

For-profit job seekers tend to be most successful in nonprofits that have already adopted business practices into their daily work either at the staff or board level. These nonprofits use words like entrepreneurial and cutting edge to describe themselves, and they use best practices from the for- profit sector to impact their missions. They actively recruit change agents for whom failure to achieve goals is not an option, and they measure success often and actively with metrics and data and dashboards. In the funding hunt, these nonprofits look at traditional types of funding such as government and foundation grants, individual donors, and special events, but they also seek out new and inventive models of revenue generation, such as for- profit subsidiaries or fee-for-service work to underwrite nonprofit operations. They are likely scaling and using social innovation funds or capacity building funds to do so. For-profit job seekers can also be successful in organizations that are standing on the precipice of great change such as when nonprofits find themselves ready to, or forced to, change at key moments when the interests of funders shift, an unexpected opportunity arises, or a crisis occurs. This moment strikes all nonprofits eventually, and when it does, these organizations open themselves to new ways of thinking, creative solutions, and previously untapped skill sets. Whether demanded by their funders, their constituents, or their internal staff, these nonprofits often take this opportunity to examine what they have been doing—and with what kinds of talent—and make adjustments to the way they fulfill their mission.

Alternatively, there are a number of nonprofits where transitioners may not do as well. For example, organizations that want to be “entrepreneurial, cutting-edge business practices-utilizing nonprofits of the future” if they aren’t already now. It is very much in vogue today—as demanded by the changing landscape of philanthropy—to want to apply the best practices of business to nonprofits. But it doesn’t always work, sometimes because the people involved are incapable or not truly sold on the idea or, more often, business practices simply cannot be applied successfully to the nonprofit in question. Many sector switchers fail because they believe the words of the staff and board that change is afoot, but when push comes to shove, leadership gets cold feet and backs out. Finally, for-profit job seekers are least likely to be successful when moving into a small, grassroots, hands-on, direct service position, regardless of the approach or overall business model of the nonprofit. Most former for-profit employees tend to be frustrated with the slower pace of change when faced with individual nonprofit constituents and find themselves much more satisfied when they can effect change with larger levels of impact. For this reason, organizations who can afford broader senior management roles will do better at recruiting and retaining transitioners than those in frontline service delivery.

Recruiting Transitioners

After you have determined that you are indeed interested in corporate transitioners, and that your nonprofit is in good standing to harness the skills and energy that one will bring to your staff, you must next turn your attention to finding the right one. This can be tricky because, unlike long-time nonprofit staffers, corporate candidates are less obvious. While some transitioners have already made forays into nonprofit employment, most aren’t incumbents in similar positions, speaking and writing nationally on topics of interest, or known in the usual networks.

You can and should still look for corporate careerists in nonprofits, but on nonprofit boards or advisory or fundraising councils. These are people who have already self-identified as interested in serving while also aligning themselves with a specific mission. You can also find them on the committees of boards, most likely finance or fundraising or strategic planning, even if they are not full governing board members. They may host tables at fundraisers, even yours! They are likely to be involved in funding collaboratives, giving circles, or social venture funds.
They are involved in issue specific learning groups or networking groups, or have gotten involved with others in a similar demographic, such as baby boomers looking to reprioritize rather than retire.

Lastly, never discount the power of plundering your own network. It’s how executive search firms begin to identify targets. Look around at all of the people you know who care about your issue or your organization and who also happen to work in the corporate world. They may be on your board, at your events, on committees, funders, friends, community members. Explain what you seek, and ask them who they know. You will be surprised how many referrals you get this way, and where these roads will lead.

Retaining Transitioners

Corporate transitioners require an extra bit of diligence in onboarding assistance for any organization, and even more so if they are the first of their kind within that organization. Take special care after the hiring has been done to announce not just the person’s background but also what makes them passionate about the issue. Discuss why you know that their particular background, including the passion they bring, is the right thing for the organization at this particular time in your evolution. Engage other champions of your organization in the decision-making process, or shortly after you are finished, in such a way that they feel invested in making this new hire a success. Assign them an internal buddy and an external mentor, perhaps someone who made a similar transition or who holds important relationships for you. Tell them about specific idiosyncrasies to your organization and its staff and discuss hot button topics, impactful words, and sacred cows. Do whatever you can to help them from making missteps, but when they make them, and they will, be available to help reduce the time between the failure and its fix.

In the end, nonprofits should explore a number of questions before hiring corporate transitioners into their ranks. Many will reap the benefits of new energy and new thinking, where others will find it difficult. However, it is only through determining if corporate transitioners will work in your organization that you will find yourself successful when recruiting and retaining them.