Can we stop assuming that people with corporate or academic backgrounds can run nonprofits and foundations better than nonprofit folks?

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[Image description: A white sheep sticking their head out of a wire fence. They have an annoyed expression. This is basically what I look like when thinking about how many people who have little to no experience working in nonprofit but who still have significant power on nonprofits. Pixabay.comm]

Recently I learned that a colleague of mine didn’t get a job leading a major organization. It was confusing, since all signs had seemed to indicate she was a good fit. After weeks wondering, she got a you-didn’t-hear-this-from-me from one of the hiring team members that the board had decided to go with someone with a corporate background. Someone who had no experience working in nonprofit was now going to lead a large and influential one, over my colleague who had years of relevant experience.

This happens frequently in our sector among the largest and most influential organizations. Foundations are especially guilty of this. According to this report from CEP that looks at the leadership of the largest 100 foundations in the US:

Experience as a grantee, if you exclude colleges and universities …. isn’t much valued by foundation boards when they’re searching for a CEO. In 2012 we identified just 14 foundation CEOs with immediate previous experience at an operating nonprofit that wasn’t a college or university. Today, that number is even lower — just 10.”

Things may have changed in the last five years, but I doubt it. Let’s start a drinking game where we take a shot of tequila every time we encounter a press release about a new foundation CEO that goes “John has 36 years running Fortune 500 companies before joining the Foundation” or “Jane comes to us with 19 years as the Chancellor of [Ivy League school].”

Of course, this is not a dis on our colleagues who come from corporate or academia, or to say that everyone who has a nonprofit background is awesome. There are plenty of effective nonprofit or foundation leaders who have never worked in nonprofit before—some of my best friends come from the corporate sector—and there are plenty of crappy leaders who have had decades in nonprofit.

The problem is the default assumption, conscious and unconscious, that people with for-profit or academic backgrounds are somehow better leaders in general, even in fields where they have no experience or knowledge, for several reasons:

It forces ineffective philosophies and practices on to nonprofits: Corporate philosophies, with some exceptions, are traditionally rooted in competition, individualism, ignorance or dismissal of concepts like racial and gender inequity, and avoidance of societal obligations such as taxes. When the people with the most influence in our sector (foundation staff and trustees, board members in general, CEOs of large organizations and foundations) hold these beliefs, it may explain why we nonprofits face so many barriers in doing our work effectively, including cutthroat competition for resources, siloed missions, constant justification of our focus on racial and other forms of equity, and inequity of funding processes. How effective can corporate mindset be in solving issues of systemic injustice when the nonprofit sector was in many ways founded to address the issues of systemic injustice caused by corporate mindset?

Academia, meanwhile, for all the critical knowledge it brings, also suffers from many challenges, including the damage done to marginalized communities because #DataAndEvalSoWhite. Yet it is probably far likelier for the dean of a major university to get a CEO position at a foundation than for someone who has led a nonprofit for several decades.

We spend a lot of time and energy catching influential people up on the basics: A lot of us are burning out, and from the conversations I’ve had, a significant reason is that it is exhausting educating the people who have power and influence in the sector about things like equity, diversity, and inclusion, or even basic nonprofit truths like general operating funds are the most effective form of funding.

Many of us live and breathe this work. It does not mean we know everything or never make mistakes. But we’re tired of educating foundation CEOs and board trustees and other powerful figures in the sector, trying constantly to convince them of the things we know would advance the sector, such as the need to ground the work in racial equity, or the need for long-term funding.

Imagine if you’ve spent years studying something, let’s say cooking, and you are an awesome chef. But the restaurant owners hire a really well-meaning person to be Executive Chef who has never worked in a restaurant before. “Well, I’ve eaten at some of the finest restaurants,” they say, “so I know what good food tastes like.” Now your job is to teach this person basic knife skills and how to not give customers salmonella. And they keep pushing back. And they get to determine the menu and they get to hire and fire you.

It increases the arrogance of the corporate sector, especially tech: Last year I somehow managed to crash a prominent social enterprise conference. The level of cluelessness and arrogance among many of the people I encountered on issues like poverty, racism, and basic tenets of equity was astounding. Like “I don’t see color” astounding. Like “we can solve poverty through apps” astounding.

Yet these individuals were lifted up as some of the most brilliant thinkers working on social issues. Those of us who came from nonprofit banded together in small groups and tried to cope with our angst and disappointment by stealing as many bars of fancy chocolate from the snack tables as we could. It was frustrating to see once again that the people with arguably the least amount of knowledge and experience to address problems still get the most power and resources to implement their ideas.  

It reinforces the inferiority complex of the nonprofit sector: When does it ever happen in the opposite direction? When do corporate people go “You know who we need to run this Fortune 500 company? Someone with a nonprofit background!” Hardly ever, and you know how I know? Because not one Fortune 500 company has asked me to be the CEO, which is kind of hurtful.

Few of us nonprofit leaders would presume that we would be able to run a major for-profit, and if we ever did, it would be unlikely we would be considered. And this is too bad, because nonprofit folks are some of the most creative, dedicated, and intelligent people out there. We have to be, considering what we have to work with: “Here’s a $5,000 grant that you can only spend on paperclips; go end homelessness.” This internalized sense that we are somehow “lesser” means we may not be assertive enough to push for things that would actually make a dent in the issues we’re working on.

Again, none of this would matter if it were working, but it’s not. Doctors don’t need to have cancer to effectively treat it. But can people who have never been in at least one relationship be effective marriage counselors? For every example of someone who comes from outside the nonprofit sector and becomes an amazing leader, I hear three stories of someone who runs an organization into the ground through a combination of ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence.  And overall, the aforementioned factors may explain the uphill battles we face every day just trying to do this work.

So what should we do about it? All of us, especially those of us in power, need to spend some time examining our biases, including whether we are biased towards the corporate sector or against the nonprofit sector. We need to openly discuss how hiring the people who are overall the least experienced in areas like equity into position of power has been affecting the entire sector.

We need to prioritize hiring people with lived experience in the issues we’re addressing. This is a basic tenet of equity, that the people most affected by injustice are in leading in the work to address it. This is critical for our sector to be effective in its work (to do it effective, here are some tips).

We need to hire people who have nonprofit experience. I remember once talking to a young man who had just graduated from a prestigious school and who had never worked at a nonprofit. I told him what my organization does. “What’s a CBO?” he asked [Community-Based Organization]. He was being trained to be a consultant advising nonprofits. If you plan to hire anyone who will advise, give money to, or otherwise have any say in how nonprofits run, please make sure they have some experience working at a nonprofit.

Now, if you are one of these people who have no nonprofit experience but who are in a position of power, you may be thinking “Oh God, Vu hates me!” that’s not true. As I said, there are plenty of amazing leaders with no nonprofit experience in their background, and if you are humble and want to learn and are not an A-hole, you can do great. It’s the default assumption that nonprofits must run like for-profits and that corporate and academia leaders are somehow naturally more effective than nonprofit leaders that I have an issue with.

The explanation that is often given when asked why someone with no nonprofit experience was chosen to lead a nonprofit or foundation is “We need to think outside the box.” Fair enough. But considering how pervasive the corporate way of thinking is in our sector—when most of our board members are from for-profits, and many CEOs of larger nonprofits are from for-profits, and most foundation CEOs and board trustees are from for-profit—the corporate way of doing things IS the box.

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