Lots of people want to do good in their lives. As a result, many of them envision themselves right at home in the non-profit world. To be sure, there are any number of ways a non-profit can change the world for the better. But make no mistake that many non-profits function in ways very different from most for-profit businesses. It can be a very different game of politics in which some people are not suited to contend. You should know the reality of non-profit work before you made a decision to join one.

David Griffith made many assumptions about non-profit work as he transitioned from the corporate world. Griffith had an accomplished career as an executive at IBM and MCI, and was the President and CEO of The Modern Group. Since then, he's held a number of board positions at corporations and non-profits, including the Delaware Valley Floral Group, Mountain Laurel Spirits, Verus, Hoober, the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, The Economy League of Philadelphia, and The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University. Today, Griffith is the Executive Director and Head Coach at Episcopal Community Services Philadelphia, , where he works to empower families to overcome intergenerational poverty. Through his experience, which he often shares in his leadership blog Wear Muddy Boots, and in his talks at Wharton and other area venues, he's learned what those aspiring to non-profit work need to know.

Here, Griffith upends the most common myths you thought you knew about non-profits:

1.     You can leave sales behind.

In business, there's always a focus on sales and the customer. If you don't have outside investors, you don't need to worry about that side as much. But in non-profits, you always have to be aware of both sides. Says Griffith, "You are selling stuff, but you need it paid for by someone other than the customer." And the sources and priorities of those funds can vary widely. "Government funding, endowments, annual funds, foundations, B Corps, social impact investors...They make for a very different world of sourcing revenues, and the timing requires very different strategies," he explains. Each one may evaluate return on investment in a different way, but you need to continue impressing all of them simultaneously.

2.     The talent is lower.

Some people think that because the stakes are different, non-profits generally have a lower level of talent. Griffith has learned that this is far from the truth, and that more non-profits are functioning more like for-profits. He explains, "Historically nonprofits have had lower compensation and benefits." When he began in non-profits, "the approaches I use to use to attract talent had to get retooled," Griffith admits. And while non-profits' ability to attract talent has increased, so has younger generations' desire for meaningful work even without the highest salaries. He beams, "There's great talent in the non-profit sector that is called to do this work. Discerning that call is critical in the hiring process."

3.     Anyone can pick it up

Some people think that if you want to do good, you'd be a natural at any non-profit. In reality, it's not that easy. On the issue of pedigree, Griffith points out how useful it is to have a Masters in Social Work no matter where you work, saying, "An MSW is a more valuable degree than you may first think. The ability to listen, assess, and drive change through others is extraordinary. Business leaders should hire more MSWs." Griffith also asserts that the issues non-profits face are incredibly complex. "I thought I was savvy on the issues of poverty, race, and economic opportunity. After all, I had run a large business and was well read and involved in nonprofits as a board member and volunteer," he says. "But the program work is complex and layered. It took two years before I could start to connect the dots around poverty and race and privilege in this space and understand what mattered to move the needle," Griffith shares.

4.     Collaboration is a given.

Non-profits are trying to do good, so between and within organizations, people must work together really well, right? Griffith says, "Joint ventures can bring terrific value to the individuals being served and drive impacts at much more effective levels." But that doesn't mean it always happens that way. "40% of the social service agencies in our region have six weeks of cash on hand. Most agencies depend on government funding for 90% of their funding," Griffith explains. As a result, he says, "Most agencies do not naturally collaborate, as a function of protecting funding." There's also no guarantee that the politics will be simpler in the office. People are passionate about their projects, and the work can be emotionally draining. Griffith explains, "In this sector, the amount of paperwork and the number of touches on any given issue is complex...Persistent and specifically relentless patience is a necessary tool in the tool kit."

5.     You need to have all the feelings.

Just because the work is personal and can be emotional doesn't mean you need to be overly in touch with every emotion in the book. In fact, Griffith reiterates several times how useful business skills are in the non-profit world. "It is easy to be pulled in many directions... The key is the focus to drive impact, and it requires a clear vision and strategy," he says. He also says that sometimes, harsh business decisions are required. "A critical skill is the ability to say no to your staff, your funders, and board, even when your heart wants to say 'Yes!'" he advises. Griffith also discusses the importance of an active but well-managed board of directors. He says, "It is essential to look at skills, diversity of thought and experiences, funding capacity, and networking ability. It's essential to have clear, transparent communications, hear from all views, have two-way feedback, and set clear expectations," he states.

On Fridays, Kevin explores industry trends, professional development, best practices, and other leadership topics with CEOs from around the world.

Published on: Apr 12, 2019
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