Walking in a Non-Profit’s Shoes

walk in a non-profit's shoes“The social sector wants to know who you are and what you care about before wanting to hear what you’ve done or what you’re capable of.”
– Jay Bloom, Bloom Anew

If you’ve decided to make the jump from the corporate to the social sector, recognize that you’ll be walking into a very different environment. Your knowledge, skills, experience, and connections may benefit the organization, but it’s a whole new ballgame in how they’ll play out.

High Level Strategy

For Profit Non-Profit
Goal: To achieve above average return on investment sustainably for the owners Goal: To carry out a defined mission by delivering services in response to identified needs
Strategy may be construed using proven constructs based on market segmentation, buyer behavior, value chain economics, competitive dynamics, other factors Strategy may need to account for issues with deep social complexity that are not solved easily
Above average returns generally proceed from competitive advantage Mission generally advanced through collaboration across the sector

Note: In Forces For Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Non-Profits, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant cite nurturing non-profit networks as one of the six practices of high impact non-profits. Such networks consist of like-minded peers who use an “open source” approach and work in coalitions to influence legislation or conduct grassroots advocacy campaigns. However, high impact non-profits also live in the tension between the need for collaboration and the reality of competing against their peers in fundraising and grant acquisition.


For Profit Non-Profit
Senior business leaders with a high degree of organizational and fiscal expertise Influential community leaders, program experts, funders, service recipients, etc. with varying expertise in management
Generally not involved in the day-to-day operations Actively involved in fundraising; may be involved in day-to-day operations

Senior Leadership Accountability

For Profit Non-Profit
  • Owners/Shareholders
  • Board of Directors
  • Government agencies (regulators, buyers)
  • Strategic partners
  • Governing Board
  • Advisory Board
  • Funders and donors
  • Government agencies (regulators, grantors)
  • Politicians
  • Partners, collaboratives
  • Clients & their families
  • Volunteers
  • Community at large

Note: Non-profit leaders are more accountable to their employees than their for-profit counterparts. Non-profit employees tend to be mission-driven and passionate. They want their voices to be heard; they want to know that they are making a difference. Non-profit employees believe they could make more money elsewhere; they are less afraid of termination.

Financial Resources

For Profit Non-Profit
  • Stock issuance
  • Corporate bonds
  • Bank loans
  • Net profits from sales of products & services
  • Government grants
  • Institutional grants (foundations, corporations)
  • Individual donors
  • Fundraising events
  • Fee for service
  • Social enterprise
Operational efficiency sweetens all funding sources Operational efficiency may or may not influence funding

Note: Resource availability in the social sector feels the influence of shifting political sands, federal, state, and local budgetary constraints, public awareness/interest, donor fatigue, etc. Committed funds may be withdrawn at will, thereby disrupting services and program outcomes.

Key Infrastructure

For Profit Non-Profit
Invests in technology, marketing, and PR at a level consistent with profit objectives Limited funding for IT, marketing, and PR; all such investments scrutinized heavily
Impact: Investments improve operations via expanded market opportunity and cost efficiency Impact: Employees lack proper tools to do their work; public lacks awareness of the issue area

Note: A 2009 survey by Common Impact of over 185 non-profit leaders revealed that 79% of non-profits surveyed are spending 2% or less of their operating budgets to support key infrastructure (technology, public relations, and marketing). Compare this to the average 20% that service companies – the closest for-profit corollary to most non-profits – spend on building a healthy infrastructure. Less than 15% of non-profits have staff with functional expertise in technology, public relations, and marketing. Moreover, perceived “overspending” on infrastructure affects a non-profit’s seal of approval from rating agencies.

Organization Structure

For Profit Non-Profit
Hierarchy with clear lines of authority Flattened hierarchy with a diverse power base
Leaders have enough concentrated power to gather input, weigh options, and make decisions Leaders do not have unilateral power to make important decisions; they must lean heavily on their powers of persuasion, political currency, and shared interest
Impact: Relatively efficient decision-making process Impact: Much slower decision-making process


For Profit Non-Profit
Bottom-line results orientation
Competitive (inside and out)
Risk taking
Stress driven by organizational. style, competitive dynamics
Legislated diversity
Mission-driven with heart-felt commitment
More protective, inertial
Risk averse
Stress driven by organization style, funding concerns, magnitude of issue area, suffering of clientele
Inherent/intentional diversity

Note: You may experience grief/anger as you are truly present to the agency’s clientele and grasp the larger issues your organization faces every day. But as the Peace Corps motto suggests: It’s the toughest job you will ever love.