Balancing Act

My friends at Blackbaud referred me to this excellent post by Jay Love, CEO of ETapestry, once a small donor database service, now a subsidiary of the mother of all donor database companies. Jay’s timely caution to nonprofits is that they be skeptical about all of the for-profit folk answering their employment ads in the face of the poor economy. People from that side of the dollar fence are generally unprepared for the culture of nonprofits. His story about vendors trying to break into our sector with no experience or research into our needs is fascinating. But I have a different take on hiring people from the for-profit world, and while Jay seems t be saying “don’t do it”, I’m on the “be sure to do it – in moderation” side.

Of course, the healthy disclaimer is that I never worked for a nonprofit, or knew all that much about the culture, before I took a job at Goodwill in late 2000. But I did have enough sense to pick an NPO that ran more like a traditional business than most, at least in some ways, and I took some time to adjust to the culture before I tried to push through any changes. Which isn’t to say that I blend all that well – I’m one of the people complaining that we move to slowly and that consensus is not a value, it’s a tool that, like most tools, is better suited for some tasks than others.

Any business (and nonprofits are businesses) benefits from diversity, just as any business benefits by retaining internal expertise. Businesses suffer when they lean too far in one direction or the other. If your hiring policy is to only hire people who are lifetime nonprofit workers, you run the risk of stifling innovation and you court stagnation. The world doesn’t sit still around us, so we have to dynamically adapt to it. A key tool for managing that adaption is to maintain a diversity of experience and skills in your organization.

Think about it: ten or fifteen years ago, non-profits were largely unregulated. There was no HIPAA. There was no Sarbanes-Oxley, which, while not designed for NPOs, is generally agreed to impose guidelines on us. There was no PCI compliance, the next wave of external oversight that will demand that we modify our processes and investments. Beyond the 990 and what we chose to disclose about our outcomes, there was little demand for detailed metrics. These are all circumstances that the for-profit world, with traditional government oversight and accountability to shareholders has dealt with for decades. We need some of that expertise.

Of course, it’s a scale, and just as we can suffer from cultural insulation, we can suffer by turning over too dramatically. While I would steadfastly debate that we need some of that for-profit perspective on board, I’ve seen a few examples of for-profit executives that take over as CEOs and — because the nonprofit style is so antithetical to the big business style — quickly replace everyone that, to them, looked like they weren’t up to the task of running “a business”. This type of culture change, in a nonprofit, is deadly, because it is a misconception to think that we can run like normal businesses. When that happens, the nonprofit runs the risk of losing all of the internal historical expertise, as the people who aren’t squeezed out don’t stick around for the cultural change, and the new execs face the budgeting challenges with no perspective to draw on.

So, a businessman like me – and I absolutely consider myself a businessman — gets frustrated with the slow pace at the nonprofits that I work for. And I beg, moan and try and shame my boss into adopting more business-like practices. But I don’t sweat it too much, because, at the end of the day, even if we don’t do things in the efficient and productive ways that I’m so stuck on adopting, we still do an amazing job of defending the planet, or, you can fill your mission in here. I’d hate to see it fall apart because we didn’t properly comply with regulations or we simply didn’t manage our resources well, and we have to staff to address that. So my shoutback to Jay Love is that the bunker mentality is a bit much. Let a few for-profit types in the door. But, until they understand and value our culture, don’t let them drive.

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