Kittleman Blog

Business-to-Nonprofit Career Transition

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

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Acknowledging the Culture Clash

We are on the forefront of major changes in the nonprofit industry where the identification and selection of business professionals to fill jobs traditionally held by nonprofit career professionals is becoming more commonplace. Leaving a career in business for a job with a nonprofit organization is still, however, quite a challenging leap. The fact that more business professionals than ever are seeking jobs in the charitable sector in no way implies that the road to the nonprofit job market is an easy or uncomplicated one to navigate. For anyone seriously contemplating this career switch, it is critically important to first realize how very different the nonprofit culture is from the business culture.

You will recall the film, Dances with Wolves, the 1990 Hollywood tale that depicted the story of a young Civil War officer who is exiled to an isolated Army outpost in Oglala Sioux territory. He slowly befriends the Sioux tribe and eventually becomes “one of them” through a fascinating process of cultural assimilation. It occurred to me that his journey reflected the cultural transition that business professionals face in going to the charitable sector. For many it is unknown territory, a different way of life and a culture where you can feel out of place. No wonder they refer to the nonprofit world as the “Third Sector” of our economy. The transition from a business career to a nonprofit career requires an acceptance of different values, different norms and practices, and even a different language.

Understanding how people of a different culture think, what they believe, why they do things a certain way, how they communicate, what they value, where they are at risk, how they interact with others outside of their culture — one assimilates all of these things only by interacting with the people of that culture. In many ways, the business culture and the nonprofit culture can be characterized as clash of cultures. These differences are substantial and begin with the most basic elements.

For example, the business sector’s primary goal is to make a profit for shareholders through the sale of goods and services; the nonprofit sector’s primary mission is to be agents of social change for the betterment of the community. Profit is a term that is well defined and widely understood; mission is a term that is often subject to different interpretations, even within an organization.

Further, the business sector raises capital through investors and manages its financial affairs with a close eye on maximizing profits and on reducing tax liabilities. The nonprofit sector raises capital primarily by soliciting charitable gifts from individuals, corporations, foundations, and government sources and manages its financial affairs with a close eye on what it costs to meet its mission. The business sector talks about return on investment, debt–equity ratios, marginal utility, and stock options. The nonprofit sector talks about sources of funding support, constituency building, volunteer recruitment and balanced budgets. Clearly, the language is quite different.

Among all of these cultural differences, business professionals who have made the transition to the nonprofit sector agree that #1 on the list of cultural adaptations is learning to lead in a “process-orientation” environment. Unlike the “transactional-orientation” culture of the business world, the process of how decisions are made in nonprofits is often as important as the decision itself. Sometimes the process of making the decision is even more important than the outcome because the process itself serves the distinctive purpose of reaching group consensus in making the decision. Experienced, senior-level nonprofit executives understand the primacy of process orientation, a slower, more deliberate decision making path, which can often be of great frustration to business executives.

So, why is process orientation so central to the nonprofit culture? The short answer is the presence of multiple constituent groups, which accompany every nonprofit entity. Unlike in business where constituent groups share the same motive, namely maximizing profits, nonprofit constituent groups are likely to have a variety of motives and points of view — even when they generally support and agree with the overall mission of the organization. While a belief in profit is universal and straightforward, a belief in altruism can take on many shades. And that can make a consensus about the purpose of a nonprofit quite challenging for a transactional-oriented business professional.

Rick King

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  1. Theron Picketts Theron Picketts Looking to transition into the non-profit sector and could use recommendations on how to relate my previous education, experiences, and skill sets. Friday, May 12, 2023