Applying government and for-profit management skills to the nonprofit sector

A move from the for-profit sector—or from a government role—to a private nonprofit organization can occur smoothly if handled in a careful and meticulous fashion. There are more skills transferable to the environment of charity and advocacy existing in for-profit businesses than the diametrically opposed nature of the corporate world might lead one to initially believe. In fact, according to the Transferable Skills Scale devised by John Liptak and Laurence Shatkin, about 75 percent of workplace skills are transferable from one sector to another. Let’s take a closer look at the most important qualities newcomers to the nonprofit sector can bring from their prior work experience, as well as the new skills they’ll need to learn to be of the best possible service to the groups they wish to join.

The capacity for inspiration

The ability to successfully lead carries undeniable importance in all organizations, corporate or otherwise. But leadership does not—in fact, cannot—solely come from the top down. As pointed out by The Bridgespan Group, the nature of the nonprofit sector not infrequently involves operating under limited funding and pressures from group members (and donors) and outside social or political forces.

To help mitigate the threat of burnout, which Nonprofit Quarterly identified as a prominent factor in the turnover of nonprofit executives, staff at all levels within these organizations must have the ability to inspire and help fellow workers. Such a requirement might seem intuitive or obvious, but bearing these qualities regardless of their past rank at for-profit businesses or current roles within the nonprofit groups they intend to work for is not always as easy to.

Bridgespan stated that demonstrating the ability to motivate and lead co-workers who are not subordinate employees, effectively commanding their respect, often earns positive recognition from managers of private for-profit businesses. Thus, it may appear particularly attractive to a nonprofit. Ann Skeet, president of the Silicon Valley Branch of the American Leadership Forum and a former vice president of marketing and strategic planning for the San Jose Mercury News, elaborated on this:

“Having experience trying to get people to do things when you don’t have authority over them is critical,” Skeet told Bridgespan. “This transfers extremely well in the nonprofit setting, in which a leader has to manage volunteers.” Consider it this way: Because volunteers are not paid workers of an organization, they won’t feel obligated to follow instructions that come off as demanding—but if a supervisor captures the attention of volunteer staff in a positive way, they will be delighted to cooperate and do their part.

Know what to offer

According to The Muse, even part-time volunteers cannot consider nonprofit work a casual pursuit, and those interested in it must know exactly what qualities they wish to bring to an organization. It naturally follows that those entering the field full time after a for-profit or government career should be doubly confident in what they hope to provide. Ensure that this desire is compatible with the organization’s needs. For example, those with considerable financial experience may want to offer their expertise to a nonprofit’s accounting department.

Individuals with sales experience could greatly benefit a charity’s telephone fundraising arm. In the latter case, perhaps the department consists of employees dedicated to the cause but lacking in the conversational patterns and rhythms that appropriately entice donors. Those who have worked in fundraising often call the critical conversation point at which the phone agent brings up money to the patron “the ask,” and that moment exists in all sales interactions. Skilled salespeople can help lead a fundraising department by helping staffers use their passion in tandem with more pragmatic sales techniques.

Adaptability and flexibility

Aside from knowing how the specific skills gleaned from one’s career in for-profit private business will adapt to the nonprofit universe, professionals crossing sectors should not lose sight of the more general skills they need to bring to their new organization. According to Common Good Careers, creativity and resourcefulness are key within any nonprofit because of how frequently these groups have to work with limited resources.

This area is one in which former government workers may sometimes have an easier learning curve than private-sector professionals: While the latter—particularly those coming from corporate America—likely had more flexible budgets, municipal departments operate under hard expense caps with more frequency than one might think. On the other hand, entrepreneurs who led startups or small-business proprietors frequently possess considerable talent for making do with limited budgets.

Regardless of the sector from which they originate, entrants to the fields of charity and advocacy cannot afford to be set in their ways and must practice flexibility in multiple avenues. The Bridgespan Group stated that nonprofit workers need to vary the tone and manner of their interactions when dealing with a wide variety of different internal departments and external partner organizations—and in fundraising relationships. Whether speaking with potential donors of great largesse or existing patrons who’ve proven their commitment time and again, choosing one’s words carefully is immensely important.

Tech skills will travel

Technology’s pervasive presence throughout Americans’ personal and professional lives is self-evident, and those skilled in its numerous applications can go far in just about any industry. These talents carry significant value in the nonprofit arena, as well. According to Fast Company, tech savvy’s importance to nonprofits lies particularly with the many uses for mobile devices and the quantitative and predictive capabilities of data analysis.

The benefits of data analytics are legion. They can streamline the operations of member databases to help identify ideal donors at a given time of year, or manage an organization’s hiring and onboarding processes to remain adherent to the 501(c) compliance standards that apply to all nonprofits in the U.S. Mobile, meanwhile, has too many applications to easily list. In addition to improving staff communications or member interactivity, its increased availability allows nonprofits working with the poor to offer low-cost devices and apps that help improve the learning or working lives of the impoverished.

Administrative abilities

It’s hardly mandatory for those seeking a switch to the nonprofit sector to apply a corporate or governmental mindset in their new endeavors. There’s joy in the newness of fulfilling work that contributes to the greater good of the public. But as previously stated, charitable work is not a hobby and requires strong commitment.

Those who are interested in nonprofit work but unsure of their readiness for it may benefit considerably from a higher education course load centered around essential management and leadership skills, such as the online Master of Public Administration program from Rutgers University. Common Good Careers noted that nonprofit finance management and grant writing, both hugely important to non-governmental public service organizations, are universally present in MPA programs. Students can choose concentrations best suited to the specific nonprofit careers they wish to pursue, and complete assignments at their own pace while remaining in their for-profit positions.

Learn More

The School of Public Affairs and Administration at Rutgers University-Newark, provider of the online Master of Public Administration, is accredited by the NASPAA. Before a program becomes eligible for accreditation by the NASPAA, its parent school must be recognized by a regional, national or international agency. Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is accredited by Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a member of the Association of American Universities.

Recommended Readings


Filter By Program