Making the move from business to non-profits a way to give back

By Guest Columnist JANICE MCKENZIE-CRAYTON, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metro Atlanta
For the last several years, I have had the opportunity to talk with and also hire a number of professionals who have made the decision to transition out of corporate America and into my world of non-profit management.

Many exchanges begin with, “I want to give back and make a difference. I am ready to get out of the rat race.” The economic climate and changes in social norms have instigated a fascinating migration of corporate executives to the public sector.

This phenomenon is having an interesting and for the most part positive impact on the non-profit sector. Subject matter experts with years of invaluable training and varied experiences are migrating to the non-profit world, excited and passionate about helping the community while being truly valued by the organizations they enter.

Allan Zoeller is CFO of Big Brothers Big Sisters. For 30 years, he worked in information technology and finance at BellSouth rising to the level of senior director. When he decided to retire just after his 53th birthday he was looking forward to having the free time to spend at home, slow the pace, and smell the roses.

The story goes however that after a few months of rose smelling and more thumb twiddling than he had ever anticipated, he decided that maybe he wasn’t ready to retire. He answered an ad for a CFO and the rest is history.

Zoeller did not find a job that allowed him to “slow his pace.” In fact what he and other “corporate refugees” come to realize and readily admit is that they have never worked so hard in their lives!

How is it that a successful corporate manager, director or executive enters the non-profit arena and ends up finding that they have never had to work so hard? Can it be true that the transition can be challenging and more difficult than one could imagine?

Here are a few reasons why:

1. Even the largest of non profits typically have budgets that dwarf in comparison even small to mid-size corporate budgets. There are fewer dollars to command, fewer staff, fewer resources overall. The notion of doing more with less is not a cliché but the absolute fact of life or mode of operation.

More often than not, there are fewer hands to do what needs to be done and less opportunity overall to delegate. Creativity and resourcefulness are mandatory and every non-profit executive, including at the CEO level, worth their salt is hands on deck, with the sleeves rolled up all the way to the shoulders.

2. Sometimes there are unrealistic expectations about what the job and the work entail. It is not uncommon to find what I have coined as “corporate arrogance,” where an executive enters the not-for- profit overly confident that if he or she ran a department or division in a multi-billion corporation then “this job can be done with one hand tied behind the back.”

In the corporate world, an executive’s responsibilities are typically a mile wide, with subordinates having yard-wide knowledge a mile deep. In the non-profit world a mile wide is the norm not only in responsibility but also in terms of knowledge.

As a rule, non-profit executives must personally have or gain sufficient depth of knowledge to be effective in multiple disciplines. I must admit that when I came from years in higher education (far from a multi-billion operation ), I was convinced that there wasn’t much I would learn and that I would be imparting my wisdom and expertise on an agency. I too had decided to give back.

One morning when I was at the office at 4 a.m. just trying to keep pace, I finally admitted that there was so much I did not know and that I had very little time to learn in order to keep the agency on course.

Another common model for migration is the former board member who knows the agency from a governance perspective and then accepts the top operations job. Often what they encounter is the “tip of the iceberg” experience where they were sure they knew what was going on inside the agency only to find out that nothing is quite as it seemed.

3. Interdependence is the name of the game in non-profits. In these times, most not-for- profits are especially flat and every member on the team has the capacity to make or break the organization. This may seem a little extreme, but in a very practical way it is true.

At BBBS, a first line social worker who does a poor job of vetting the background of a volunteer, checking on references and then providing that valuable information up the chain for decision making, puts a child’s safety at risk and the agency’s reputation and viability in jeopardy.

Everyone is important and everyone’s actions have the potential for contributing to high levels of success or sheer disaster.

4. Finally, the work of the board is especially crucial and is often a new phenomenon to many coming out of the corporate world, unless they operated at the highest C levels in the company. One must have the ability to work with, sometimes manage and also take guidance from boards of directors. It is an interesting dichotomy to have 30 supervisors, all of whom function in many respects as volunteers who work for you. Getting that right can be an art and a science.

While there may be unfamiliar components to the new work, the migrating corporate executive will also find the familiar. Increasingly, non-profit agencies are developing effective hybrid models for operating.

They are implementing strong coporate business practices for serving the needs of the community. Strategic plans are vibrant, dynamic directional maps for service delivery. Balanced score cards are used to articulate, track and assess organizational goals. Revenues exceeding expenses is the mantra of agency boards.

And, bottom line results are interpreted by the number of children served, the impact of the service on families lives, the retention of clients or customers, the quality service delivery and the breadth and depth of outreach provided to those in need.

It is an understatement to say that the non-profit sector is not for the faint of heart. The hours are long. The demands for service are high and the resources limited. There are no profits to be exacted for shareholders, but there are strongly articulated expectations on delivery of services to stakeholders. Accountability is high. And, stakeholders “invest” by judging the agency through multiple lens of program effectiveness, ability to raise funds and tangible results for the people served.

Recently, a good friend became the CEO of a well regarded youth serving agency. After a very successful career in commercial real estate, he made the leap to serving youth.

Our offices face one another. Soon after he began in his new role, we greeted one another in the hall. As we met, I noticed that he seemed troubled. When I inquired, he explained that during a visit with a generous donor, he got a call regarding the safety of one of the kids in the program.

He told me that everything turned out just fine but confessed how difficult and unsettling the experience had been. I was able to immediately empathize because, after 17 years in this work, I already knew what he was having to learning very quickly. So much more can be at stake when you are responsible for the welfare of young people, the health and welfare of citizens in general.

A misstep when serving the community has far reaching implications that one may not have to face in the for profit world. If a deal falls through, you can try for the next; if the presentation deck wasn’t as tight as you had hoped, there is always tomorrow.

When a child, a life is at stake……you get the picture. He is confirming through his early experiences what he instinctively knew when he took the job, the stakes in this work are high but the rewards are …… priceless.

As the economic , social and cultural paradigms continue to shift, the opportunity for corporate executives to move into the not for profit sector will continue to increase. There is tremendous gain for all concerned. If this is a transition you are interested in making , here are five things that you should consider to help you succeed.

They are as follows:

• Non-profits are businesses too! And, there is a very high accountability quotient.
• The learning curve WILL be long.
• Every executive will need to bring a portfolio that is broad and deep.
• Creativity, flexibility and resourcefulness are mandatory, not optional.
• Working in the non- profit sector most likely will be the hardest job you will ever love!

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