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Working for a Nonprofit is Not Always What You Think

There can be many misconceptions about what it is like working for a nonprofit organization.  If you dream of changing lives and having a positive impact on the community by working at a nonprofit, you need to know the reality of the challenges that come with it.  Yes, it’s incredibly rewarding but it is also very hard.  This article will tell the story of one leader’s switch from for-profit to nonprofit employment and the skills that enabled her to excel in her nonprofit career.

Peggy Zink nonprofit leader

Nonprofit leader, Peggy Zink

Peggy Zink is now retired from full-time work but prior to retirement, she spent 13 years leading Cincinnati Works, a nonprofit focused on providing meaningful work for people living in poverty. Before her time at Cincinnati Works, Peggy spent the first 23 years of her career in the for-profit space.  As her employment journey took her from Accenture to Fidelity Investments, to independent consulting, Peggy expanded her business exposure and knowledge.

Peggy’s Path to a Nonprofit Career

During her 14 years at Accenture, Peggy was given a strategic planning project with United Way.  This gave her a close look at the challenges our community faces and planted the seed for greater involvement in the nonprofit sector.  Additionally, Accenture is a big champion of community involvement, so she was given many opportunities to volunteer during her employment with them.

During this time Peggy also started serving on nonprofit boards.  This experience was not only rewarding, but it proved to be invaluable later in life.

In 2009, Peggy was hired as the President & CEO of Cincinnati Works, a 12-year-old, founder-led organization. This was her official leap from for-profit to nonprofit employment.  Once stepping into the role, she faced new challenges.  Like any new role, some challenges were bigger than expected and some were smaller.

The Challenges – some smaller and some larger

Coming into an organization that was being led by the founder can have its unique challenges.  She was warned of what is commonly called “Founder’s Syndrome.” This happens when the founder, who has invested so much time and energy into an organization, finds it very difficult to make way for a new leader to take the organization to the next level. Frequently, the founder is reluctant to share their power and responsibilities with others, which obviously leads to significant issues in leadership.  Fortunately, this was not Peggy’s experience.

Peggy found that the transfer of power from the founder to herself was not as difficult as she was warned.  In her case, the founder did a great job of letting go.  Although this may not be everyone’s experience, Peggy was pleased that this challenge was smaller than expected.

One area that was a bigger challenge than expected was the scarcity of resources.  As Peggy will tell you, “It simply never goes away.”  You must be so frugal and manage a lot of work that someone else would have done at a previous job in the for-profit sector.  For example, she had grown to count on an administrative assistant for day-to-day support, but she did not start at Cincinnati Works with an admin.  Likewise, there was no HR person or Facilities person.  At a nonprofit, you need to do the work you had depended on others to do in the past.

To help minimize this constant scarcity you must fundraise – another challenge that was bigger than Peggy hoped. Peggy admits that fundraising is not a strength of hers and that further exasperated the need to be constantly raising funds. “I knew fundraising was going to be hard.  It was, and it never got easy. It is omnipresent.”

Yet, Peggy did have success in fundraising, enabling her to grow Cincinnati Works. The irony of running a successful nonprofit is that the more you grow, the more funds you need; the more funds you need the more fundraising you need to do. You can’t let up when you reach greater success, in fact, just the opposite is true.

The Skills That Brought Success

Peggy’s years in the for-profit sector equipped her with skills that were invaluable as a leader at a nonprofit.  Three skills that were leaned on heavily were her broad business knowledge, her ability to implement practices and principles, and her familiarity with board management.

Broad Business Knowledge – Nonprofits are driven by a very passionate mission to help others, but that can’t happen without a solid operating model.  “You can’t have a successful nonprofit organization if you don’t know how to run a business.”  In Peggy’s case, Cincinnati Works was founded by an accountant so it was very much in the mindset of the leaders that they would operate by best practices from the for-profit community.  Her robust business knowledge helped her continue that model.

Implementation of Practices and Principles – As an organization matures, policies and principles are critical to healthy growth.  Peggy excels in providing rigor around data management and analysis.  This proved to be a huge benefit when she started at Cincinnati Works.  When she stepped into leadership, the organization was 12 years old, and at an age that needed structure and support to help it really grow.  She did this by applying practices and principles – skills she brought over from her for-profit experience.

Board Management – While sitting on boards of nonprofit organizations, Peggy garnered great insight as to the best way to manage and leverage the board.  When her role as CEO/President required her to lean on a board, she was poised to make the most of the board members’ wisdom, resources, and connections.

Recommendations to For-profit Professionals Thinking of a Nonprofit Career

Peggy’s recommendation to other professionals thinking of moving into the nonprofit sector includes two action items and a word of caution.

  1. Volunteer – get familiar with the clientele, the rewards and the challenges that come with working for a nonprofit.
  2. Get on a nonprofit board – this exposure provides a view of the business side of nonprofits.
  3. Don’t expect to relax – don’t come in with the expectation that working for a nonprofit will be easier than working at a for-profit. It’s very hard work in a very different way.

Advice to Organizations that are Hesitant to Hire Leaders with No Nonprofit Experience

The practice of not hiring people without specific industry experience is something Peggy encountered herself.  It wasn’t necessarily from for-profit to nonprofit, but in other moves that she wanted to make.

When a hiring manager is skeptical about the ability of someone able to excel without a specific kind of experience, Peggy would say, “It’s the skills that are important and what you want to hire for.  Skills can be applied to many different contexts.”

When she hired people at Cincinnati Works that didn’t have any formal nonprofit experience, she knew they would have a learning curve – just like she did – but if they had the necessary skills, that is what she needed.  She could teach unique things about the nonprofit; she needed people who were equipped with the necessary skills to do the job and keep the nonprofit running and growing.

When considering someone with no formal nonprofit experience, Peggy recommends looking for a candidate who has volunteer experience. People get great exposure through volunteer work and that should be a big advantage to getting hired at a nonprofit – at any level.

The Successful Career Journey

During her 13 years at Cincinnati Works Peggy grew the organization from 17 employees and a $1.6 million budget to 50 employees and a $4.7 million budget, while also establishing partnerships with employers and other nonprofits across Greater Cincinnati.  Along with her passion for the mission, this success was built on skills she learned in the for-profit sector.

At Centennial, we’ve placed a lot of talented people in key leadership roles for nonprofit organizations.  Some of these people had formal nonprofit experience and some of them did not.  As Peggy astutely highlighted, it’s the skills that make all the difference.  When the skills and the heart of the candidate align with the needs of the organization, a great impact can be had.