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. I'd just like to throw up a warning flag not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.  The key difference in the business models is how the revenue or resources are generated.  But regardless of whether we're in a for-profit venture or an NFP, we're still attempting to generate resources and these activities need a strategy and they need management.

    While a "corporate person" may not be the best choice for NFPs, sometimes "corporate principles" are.   Many NFPs in North America today are being run by people with a lot of heart, but with no management experience or education… and their budgets are getting run into the ground because they aren't being managed effectively.  They aren't being measured. 

    While it's important to recognize that you can take the executive out of his 60th floor office but you can't then make him work in a basement (easily), many of the principles by which executives manage their firms should begin to be employed by NFPs around the country (and Canada)!  So let's beware that we do not encourage NFPs to ignore corporate, organizational, strategic leadership principles…  let's ensure that we're talking about an NPF that's already grounded in effective organizational practices when we suggest that they think twice about hiring from Wall Street.  By all means, don't hire the wrong person for the job, but let's also avoid the assumption that our NFPs don't require effective management.


  5. A few years ago I worked at a well-respected mega church that had decided to "go to the next level" with their tv ministry. So they hired outside "experts" – aka Big Ministry producers – to build a new division. One new Executive Producer lasted just a year until his sniping & temper became too much. Another Producer lasted just 4 months because he created such a hostile work environment (by yelling at people) that eventually the church leadership hated him (and the media dept by extension). Sadly, the previous staff, who had served for years, became so polarized that virtually all of them left within 9 months. Two of them resigned in one day. Amidst the chaos, the church’s TV ministry leaders refused to own up to their mistakes that they’d picked the wrong "professionals" while also alienating their media staff.

    My job was to clean up this ugly mess. I discovered there was an ingrained church mentality in place that refused truly to listen to outsiders because they were not "home-grown." In the end, outsider motives (and hearts) were questioned, their wisdom dismissed and key decisions postponed. This became an intractable situation. Not even a year into my tenure, I was out the door too. Today, the tv ministry still puts out an average television show yet continues to spend millions on airtime. The few staff that remain are talented, good hearted people who just want to create a better tv program. The pastor is a great guy, a phenomenal speaker. He deserves much better. But going to the "next level" has been a category 5 disaster. In fact, the only leader still standing is the one who put this fiasco into place.

    There is a moral to this story: when hiring outside professionals, find someone faithful, loyal and who "gets" ministry.  But some competency is important too. The expert mix of these 4 key ingredients is difficult sometimes. Get them wrong and the test tube can blow up.

  6. Folks, this is wisdom here.  Take this to heart before hiring that shooting star who just walked in.  A calling is birthed in the heart.  A career is hatched in the ego.  Wise is he who can discern this difference in himself and observe it in others.

  7. 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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