Creative Leadership

Be Careful Hiring For-Profit Employees in the Non-Profit World

When economic problems hit the business world, or executive careers get in trouble, we often see a flood of people from the business world  looking for jobs in the non-profit and religious sector.  I’ve personally been showered in resumes, and a lot of our client churches, ministries, and non-profits are getting hit up as well.  The first response from non-profits is usually excitement – “Hey this former corporate CEO or Hollywood producer wants to come and work for our church!” But let me be brutally honest for a minute, because I’m not impressed.  Before you jump at the chance to hire a highly regarded executive from the for-profit world at your church, ministry, or non-profit organization, here’s a few things to consider:

1)  The business models are dramatically different. To switch from selling products retail or wholesale to donor development is a big leap.  It requires a completely different mindset.  And the organization it takes to make that happen is different as well.  Just because you successfully ran a division at IBM or Paramount Pictures doesn’t necessarily mean you can transition to non-profits.

2)  Non-profits don’t have the cushy perks businesses have. We turn our own lights off, our benefit plans are smaller, and most important – our resources aren’t as big.  I know one manager who was so used to having a huge staff, that when he transitioned to a non-profit he quit within a month.  He actually had to get his own coffee and open his own mail.  Shocked, he couldn’t handle it.

3)  The non-profit world is a calling and career, not just a “bridge” until you get another “real” job. Too many executives think that during difficult times they can just jump into a church or ministry job for the short term.  But we’re not a summer camp or internship program.  We take it seriously, and we’re in it for the long haul.

4)  We work long hours too. But we don’t have the incentive of bonus pay (even overtime), or a car service to take us home after hours.

5)  Sure you did the occasional pro-bono TV spot at the big agency in New York, but every spot we do has a micro or zero budget. Can you negotiate vendors down to nothing, work with college interns, or maintain equipment with rubber bands and bailing wire?

6)  Is there something you’re not telling us? I have trouble believing that if you’re REALLY a successful Hollywood producer or business leader, you actually want to come and work for our church’s media department.  Pardon me for being skeptical, but that’s a big step down professionally. Call me cynical, but if you really had it going on, why aren’t you still in the big leagues?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m thrilled that people value non-profits enough to want to help.  But the truth is, over the last 10 years – and especially during a financial crisis – I’ve seen numerous big time executives switch to non-profits with catastrophic results.  In one case, he ran the budget in the ground because he didn’t know how to manage limited resources.  In another she ran off the staff because she didn’t realize you can’t yell at volunteers.  And another because he just couldn’t grasp the donor development model.

Trust me – a superstar executive, TV producer, creative, or CEO in the secular market doesn’t necessarily understand religious media, non-profit management, or evangelism.  Remarkably few have even volunteered at any non-profit organization before.

Pastor, ministry leader, or non-profit executive – take the stars out of your eyes.  You work in a specialty field that takes a special kind of experience, discernment, and expertise. Don’t always assume that a Hollywood producer, advertising agency whiz, or former Wall Street hot shot will get it.  Chances are, they won’t.

Maybe we should think the other way around.  If non-profit leaders ran Wall Street, I doubt we’d have so many financial problems to begin with…


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  1. Great comments Phil. I can recall a couple of production decisions where we decided to go with a lesser known (and on paper) lesser qualified candidate, but we just knew they had a calling and "got" the vision. Every-time it was a blessing because the real qualifications was that the person was God's choice.

  2. I made the transition from the "real-world" to NPO over six years ago.  One of the hardest things for me to overcome was, like you say, "we turn our own lights off".  I have to do things now that no company on earth would pay me to do.  Corporate would say – "we pay you to produce x product", or "I can bill for your time". In the NPO world you start to think some $6/hr person could do this task – but there are no resources so you wind up doing it.  The concept of tying work skills to income or  producing a product are simpley not there so you loose that mindset.

     Great Article.


  3. This gives all of us a ton to think about from the “I am looking for a ministry position” standpoint. My husband has been in ministry for almost 10 years and he uses secular business leaders as models for how to lead. There needs to be a happy medium between the warm and fuzzies of loving all of God’s creatures and cut-throat corporate.

    We are, in fact, in sales. We ask people to put their whole life and trust in someone they can’t touch, hug or call on the phone. In today’s world, that makes the church staff and leaders the most talented salesmen out there.

  4. All true Phil. Working at a non-profit also requires you were multiple hats. It also means your real gratification comes more from making a difference in people’s lives than from making a fat salary.

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