Leaving Corporate for a Nonprofit: How to Adapt Your Leadership Style

April 15, 2014 | The Glass Hammer

By Jennifer Keck

According to the 2013 Nonprofit HR Solutions employment trends survey, 40 percent of nonprofits indicated an increase in staff size in 2013, and 44 percent had plans to create positions in the upcoming year. This percentage follows an increasing trend, up from 33 percent in 2011 and 43 percent in 2012. As the nonprofit world continues to expand, many women have made the transition, using their for-profit experience to succeed in their new roles.

Like most organizations, a nonprofit’s ability to deliver results depends more on the quality of leadership than any other factor, a Bridgespan study on the nonprofit leadership deficit reports. Yet a growing number of organizations, the retirement of managers from the baby boomer generation, and a lack of intermediaries to help with recruiting and developing managers has led to a leadership gap. It is within this gap that executive women are increasingly finding their niche.

What drives top female talent to leave behind a profit-driven business for the challenge of managing a nonprofit, sometimes but not always, for less pay?

According to Mary Lee Montague, Executive Vice President of DHR International, a top five global retained executive search firm, “The [nonprofit] sector offers all people the opportunity to be a servant leader within a mission driven organization while benefiting both personally and professionally to make the world a better place.”

Montague has already placed numerous female CEOs in nonprofit leadership roles including: Shannon Block of the Denver Zoo, Merri Ex of Family Focus (Chicago), Heather Alderman of the IL Children’s Healthcare Foundation, Robin McGinnis of the Infant Welfare Society (Chicago), and Barbara Mosacchio of Chicago Youth Centers.

While there are many success stories, Montague stressed that executives who make the transition to the nonprofit sector understand that an effective nonprofit leadership style differs from traditional leadership. “It’s about ‘servant leadership’,” she noted.

Servant leadership emphasizes the importance of soft skills such as listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, commitment to the growth of people, community building, and stewardship. Montague explained, “Servant leaders don’t have to have all of these characteristics, but they all help to create the right atmosphere – the right culture – within an organization.”


The Challenges of Nonprofit Leadership
Nonprofit organizations require leaders who can motivate both staff and volunteers to work toward a central mission – often despite financial and human resource restraints.  Additionally, a Bridgespan Group article on transferable skills highlights the importance of adapting to a different leadership style. The top down, more authoritarian-style of management tends to be ineffective in a nonprofit setting. Executives who have a proven ability to persuade others and a collaborative style are best suited to this industry.

Experience working with employees across various levels of an organization, from the sales floor to the executive suite, also lends itself to a smoother transition into the nonprofit world. Knowing how to get people to do things when you don’t have authority over them is especially important when you are working with volunteers.

However, it takes more than good management to lead a nonprofit. These organizations rely on local governments, community centers, public schools, and even neighborhood residents for grassroots organizing and funding. Collaboration with key stakeholders is a vital part of any nonprofit organization’s efforts to affect social change, and don’t forget about the board.

“Some of the biggest challenges are making sure the board is happy, raising the money necessary to carry out goals, and working with mission driven stakeholders,” Montague said.

Executives must know how to align all their constituents around a common initiative in order to obtain the funding and resources needed to achieve a nonprofit’s goals. The ability to manage a wide range of activities such as finance, human resources, and communications is critical.

Work experience in a resource-strained environment is also a key factor in making the transition into nonprofit. Anyone who has started her own business or has had a leadership role in a startup will be well prepared to face the challenge of maximizing resources, and doing more with less.

Transitioning from For-Profit to Nonprofit
If you haven’t honed all the skills listed above, don’t worry. This is simply a guideline to help you determine if a career in nonprofit leadership is right for you. Before you make the jump, Montague suggests you take a few things into consideration.

“It’s important to know you need to embrace the following: the care and feeding of the board of directors, the ability to do ‘an ask’, believe in the mission of the organization, understand the passion of the volunteer stakeholder, and the joy of being a servant leader…the ability to drive from the back of the bus,” she said.

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