This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab
Two years ago, after 20-plus years in executive roles in the for-profit sector, I accepted a role in the charitable sector as chief executive officer of CanadaHelps, a self-funded social enterprise that operates a leading online donations portal and provides affordable online fundraising technology and training to over 15,000 smaller charities in Canada.
Since then, I have been approached many times by for-profit colleagues who are intrigued by such a transition but worry that going into the non-profit space means they cannot go back.
That may have been true years ago, but the walls separating the two spaces are becoming more permeable, and there will be more crossover in the future.
With corporate social responsibility becoming more deeply integrated into the core business sector, the growth of social entrepreneurship, the emergence and growing popularity of B corporations – companies that exist to have a positive impact on society as well as make money – new social finance vehicles, and the application of innovation and technology to drive social change, the charitable space is an incredibly dynamic place to be in right now.
The opportunities for innovation are substantial at a time when our communities need more cross-sector, problem-solving models for addressing persistent global and local problems. More practically, what McKinsey calls the "triathlete" leader – someone who has had experience in the for-profit, not-for-profit and the government sectors, is becoming an increasingly sought-after commodity.
The context of leadership in the charitable space is uniquely complex and demanding.
Today, charities are being asked to become more self-sufficient and entrepreneurial. The new pressures come amid an influx of venture-style, social return-on-investment-inspired views, government funding cutbacks and the changing face of philanthropy driven by demographic and technological factors.
This growing pressure calls for radically different ways of thinking about the charitable sector.
Once you cross over the divide that separates for-profit and non-profit, you will be welcomed, but you will also realize that you are an outsider – it could be unsettling. Just as with any older industry or sector, there is an entrenchment in the status quo and aversion to taking any risk – understandable when you consider the intense scrutiny of charities and the tunnel-view judgment of charities based on administration and fundraising costs, but also dangerous when change and risk-taking is so key to learning and moving forward.
My three critical pieces of advice for anyone considering a move to the charitable sector centre on attitude and cultural integration – all other skills are highly transferable.
1. Leave your ego at the door and be prepared to prove yourself again
There is a different frame of reference when you work for a charity, and you will need to orient yourself first. It will take some time. The biggest mistake for-profit executives make is to come in as "know-it-alls" because, somehow, their experience is superior or gives them an unquestionable advantage. This is misguided. The charitable space is far more nuanced, ambiguous and complex, a space where paths for effective action are often not easy to figure out and the stakes are high. Your skill set will be rendered useless if you don't learn how to adapt it to a new context.
2. Be willing to learn
You really have tons to learn, so a humble attitude, curiosity, and an open mind are musts. You will need to do lots of listening, and sometimes it will feel as if you are going backward. You will feel lost. If you are someone who cannot ask others for help, the transition will be more challenging.
3. Let the growth happen
If you step into the charitable sector, allow yourself to be changed by it – you will be genuinely richer for it. It will be scary at times, and infinitely buoying at others. For me, it's been a journey worth taking.
The enormous importance of charities to our communities and the world as a whole cannot be overstated. Charities are increasingly seen not only as being there for us in a place left empty by government and business, but as critical partners and leaders in effectively solving our most pressing problems – I want to play a part.