After working as a commercial director for most of my career, I reached a stage a few years ago where I needed to make a change. I decided it was time for me to give back to the community, and find a role with a greater sense of purpose that aligned with my own values.

Fortuitously, I came across a leadership role at Stepping Stone House and have never looked back. However, the transition certainly wasn’t smooth sailing. Having come from the corporate world, it took time for me to secure the role and then adjust to the different culture and management style of a not-for-profit (NFP).

A recent NFP Governance and Performance Study found that while many NFPs have strong organisational cultures, they tend to lack the formal processes needed to effectively manage this culture. While I have found this to be true, I have also learnt that CEOs with a corporate background can transform the way NFPs are run.

Your toolkit for transitioning to NFP leadership and making a positive difference

  1. Be prepared.

    In the words of Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement, “be prepared”. Before you make the transition to NFP leadership, get some hands-on experience on a board and/or as a volunteer, ideally in the area you would like to build your career. This will help you to learn how the sector works, what the culture’s like and most importantly, build the relationships to facilitate your entry.

  2. Sign up for the NFP recruitment newsletters.

    It’s a good idea to sign up for NFP recruitment newsletters so you can get regular updates from the industry. Newsletters will help you get a sense of the roles that exist, the packages available and which recruitment consultants to engage with.

  3. Connect your people to vision and purpose.

    As with any other sector, strong leadership in the NFP sector relies on a clear sense of vision and purpose, and a belief in what you are doing. It’s critical for NFP leaders to give their team “breakthrough experiences” that connect them to a sense of this greater purpose: What are we here for? Who are we helping? What kind of positive impact are we making?

  4. Build a robust business model.

    A top priority for leaders in the NFP sector is to drive down administration costs and often this can be achieved through volunteers. This means that more money and resources can be channelled into the cause itself.

    CEOs need to be smart about the way a charity’s business model is structured. Charities tend to operate on very little, but this approach can dilute the professionalism at times. Ensure you have strong business acumen even when recruiting volunteers to the cause. Volunteers are usually time poor and less reliable than payroll workers, so patience and versatility are key.

  5. Be commercially savvy.

    The very term ‘not-for-profit’ is a misnomer, because NFPs are working to make a profit. At Stepping Stone House, we need to raise the income to support disadvantaged and homeless young people. The end-of-year surplus positions NFPs to build a prudent reserve in case of an emergency or if government funding suddenly ceases.

    CEOs from the corporate world are uniquely positioned to apply a commercial mindset to charity work. It’s not enough to want to make a positive difference and be kind to others; you also need the business acumen and financial stability to succeed.

  6. Create a great team culture.

    Virgin Group’s Richard Branson said, “If you look after your staff, they will look after your customers” and this is so true. It’s crucial to create a great team culture, where the best people want to participate and thrive.

    Yes, the margins are tight in an NFP, but the community spirit will often more than make up the financial shortfall through pro bono support and experiences, building a sense of fun and connectedness in the workplace.

Corporate CEOs should genuinely consider taking on a role in the NFP sector because their skills are transferrable and badly needed. These roles could mean a reduced income, but there are still a lot of high-paying roles in the sector, especially with large charities.

What you lose in income you will more than make up in job satisfaction and a greater sense of purpose. By applying your professional skills to an NFP leadership role, you too can create a legacy that supports people and communities in need.