Richard Schmidt / Divergent Paths

July 27, 2018; Virginia Business

Some time ago, NPQ covered the trend of for-profit professionals making what was at the time seen as a bizarre leap into the nonprofit world. At the time, NPQ’s reaction was muted—these transitions did not always turn out well. In fact, the assumption that underwrote many of the articles on this topic was that nonprofits were lucky to get these folks, who must be saints to come into our lowly ranks and lead us into the light. This was bound up, to some extent, in the idea that nonprofits should act more like businesses, a notion that is steadily being debunked in favor of a little sectoral self-esteem for being capable of managing the stakeholders and multiple bottom lines of these complex entities.

Still, this recent realization that nonprofit leaders are not only competent but perhaps also a model for business has grown, as we believed it should. The Wall Street Journal’s Alix Stuart wrote in 2016 that the “number of for-profit candidates applying for or considering nonprofit jobs [rose] 25%.” While Stuart mainly focuses on the challenges that a financial executive might face during their transition, she also brings up a compelling call to action. “What’s very interesting, and may warrant further study,” she writes, “is what is driving this trend.”

It is clear that financial reasons are nowhere near the top of the list for a nonprofit position-seeking executive; it is simply a fact that the overwhelming majority of organizations cannot afford to compete with the six- and seven-digit salaries that leadership often receives at for-profit companies. NPQ has examined what goes into setting nonprofit executive salaries before. However, we all know that wealth—even massive amounts of it—doesn’t make for a fulfilling career.

If making Scrooge money doesn’t lead to satisfaction, then what does? It might be hard to believe, but you can eventually get tired of making a steady salary if what you’re doing to get it feels meaningless. In a survey cited by The Guardian, 74 percent of job candidates—regardless of pay—said they want a position that matters. A study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this, proving that nonprofit employees are far more satisfied with the meaning of their work and the intrinsic reward that comes with it, as opposed to the prospect of greater pay at a for-profit company

What exactly signifies that a job has meaning? In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, DePaul University associate professor Jaclyn Jensen outlines the three most important, heavily researched criteria to determine the meaningfulness of a job, and they are as follows: “that it allows you to use a variety of skills, that it has an impact on other people’s lives, and that you are able see the product of your work through from beginning to end.” With these requirements in mind, there should be no doubt as to why this shift is occurring.

A Variety of Skills

Remember how the first two articles focused primarily on the unfamiliar trials that a transitioned executive would face? What would those tough tasks be, if not a but a means to use a “variety of skills” to solve them? Not only are nonprofit executives tasked with designing systems entirely different from what they are used to in the for-profit sector, they also have to deal with a series of completely new regulations, clientele, and revenue streams; for a burnt-out C-Suiter that’s used to the same-old, stale business tactics, this fresh challenge is a great opportunity to showcase their skills, for both personal fulfilment and career prospects down the line.

A survey by Korn Ferry confirms this hypothesis, revealing that the top reason—at 73 percent of all respondents’ number-one choice—for searching for a job in 2017 “is to seek a more challenging position, while the quest for greater compensation comes in almost dead last as a reason to leave.” Why seek a challenge? Because “the study shows that professionals are on a quest to continually improve their skill sets.”

An Impact on Other People’s Lives

This one is a lot more self-explanatory; our sector foregoes profit for the sake of serving charitable missions. It’s no secret that a need for meaningful impact hits executives hard in particular—after all, the most impactful change that, say, a high-level financier sees is in the form of numbers in a portfolio, not in people, although trends have shown that the public is beginning to hold for-profit companies to account for their values, as well. Studies have said that the overwhelming majority of those who join up with nonprofit organizations do so because “nonprofit employees care” and “engagement and mission attachment are directly related.” Simply put, people work for nonprofits because they want to make a difference on an issue that matters to them, something that they may not be able to get as a for-profit employee, executive or not.


This movement toward meaningful work is by no means slowing; “94 percent of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause,” according to Forbes’ Eddie Lou, and over a third are willing to sacrifice career prospects and responsibility to get it. This is a huge uptick compared to Gen X-ers, of whom only 19 percent were willing to do the same.

In other words, nonprofits need to continue down the path of understanding that we are the venue for the next stage of our economy, and that includes providing the workplaces of choice. Can we live up to it?—Moshe Hecht and Ruth McCambridge