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Switching from For-Profit to Nonprofit

A leadership deficit is prompting nonprofits to look outside their ranks for managers, says Bridgespan Group Chairman Thomas Tierney

Imagine quitting your job to move to an organization that has fewer resources, affords you less control over the product, and offers a lower salary. Sound enticing? How about throwing into the mix more personal satisfaction, a charitable mission, and a greater sense of community? Indeed, it all adds up to a winning proposition for the many workers in the for-profit sector who are making the transition to the nonprofit world.

Thomas Tierney, chairman and co-founder of the Bridgespan Group, a management solutions firm for nonprofits, says nonprofits are likely to look beyond their own ranks and to use external recruiting methods because of an anticipated leadership deficit. "They need more leadership because of growth but they lack the internal supply that corporations have," says Tierney. "You're not going to close that gap by recruiting from within—not exclusively. A substantial portion has to come from outside."

While the boundaries between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds are blurring, thanks to the rise of corporate social responsibility programs in the former and a growing appreciation for business knowledge in the latter, making the switch between one world and the other can still be difficult. The often-lengthy process can be more arduous than a traditional job search, requiring patience, the willingness to cast aside ego, and the ability to adjust to doing more with less, say those who have made the transition or helped others to do so.

Moving to a World of Consensus

Clay Parcells, marketing vice-president for the career transitions firm Right Management, advises for-profit workers who are interested in nonprofit work to check out the environment before landing a job.

"Understanding the culture—how decisions are made, how people address each other, whether it's a hierarchical organization in terms of titles, then correlating that knowledge with the culture they're coming from—is very important," says Parcells. "In some businesses people are encouraged to make decisions on the fly: whatever's best for the customer, get it done. In the nonprofit world things often have to be approved by a boss or a board, and that's a very different process.

"You have to be especially sensitive [to the new environment] when you integrate," says Debra Oppenheim, co-founder of, an executive search firm for nonprofits.

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