They don’t care how you did it in Cleveland

Jennifer and I were talking recently about my now 18-month-old transition from working in the business world to the nonprofit sector. (Jennifer is the NCCF’s CEO and my boss, so the conversation wasn’t entirely academic.)

I told her how different it is to be sitting on the “inside” of the Foundation. Even though the NCCF had been a client for most of the nearly five years I did consulting, and the corporation where I practically grew up has had more than a nodding relationship to this place – it’s not quite what I expected.

I’m not a newbie to the sector. I’ve been on my share of nonprofit boards and volunteered widely in the community. I advised many other nonprofit clients while a consultant. But it’s not until I came on board full-time at the NCCF that I realized that I am not in Kansas anymore.

That is not to say I thought I was in Oz. This is a blog, so to be any good it has to be honest. I’m not going tell you that I initially thought the differences were all good.

For example: The “just do it” mentality that has informed my frame of reference during most of my adult working life did not appear as strong here. And at first this drove me crazy. Why do some things take so long, I wondered? Why don’t we just do it?

As my tenure grew, I began to realize that sometimes it made absolutely no sense to just do it. That taking a wait-and-see approach on some initiatives saved money or avoided costly mistakes. Or that limited resources combined with a hard-working staff that wears many hats could not possibly just do one more thing at this very moment.

I always liked my new team, but I’ve really begun to appreciate them. Some, like me, came from a business environment and are here because they’re passionate about our work. Some have grown up in this world so are nonprofit pros who teach me something new every single day. That is exciting to me.

When I was on “the other side” and sitting on nonprofit boards, I remember thinking that some could have benefitted from a “business” approach to running their organizations. Yikes! I hope I wasn’t ever smug enough to say it out loud!

A column on the Blue Avocado site (that NCCF colleague Patricia recently blogged about) reminds us that many corporate “best practices” were actually born in the nonprofit world. The very first corporations were actually nonprofit organizations that were focused on communities and enjoyed participatory management. And more recently: many Sarbanes-Oxley reforms were standard operating procedures in the nonprofit world long before Enron necessitated these rules for corporate America.

So the next time you hear a business person on your board suggest that your nonprofit focus on metrics or accountabilities, remember my own conversion and realize: there’s hope! And if you’re a corporate-type who harbors any of these obnoxious tendencies, stop yourself because you know not what you say.